Book review – Smarter, Faster, Better 

After really enjoying Charles Duhigg‘s excellent first book The Power of Habit, it was an easy choice  for me to grab a copy of his second book on the way to my holiday, having been given a recommendation from Mitesh. I wasn’t disappointed!

Essentially the book looks to explore ways in which we as individuals and teams can be more creative and productive. Some of the points and ideas are familiar, but I really like Duhigg’s style of weaving neatly summarised academic literature into memorable real world stories and characters.

Here’s my top 4 takeaways-
1. Single most important tip for teams: build a commitment culture through fostering psychological safety.

A commitment culture (as opposed to a star culture) is one where the whole team is genuinely committed to helping each other reach a common goal. Psychological safety means that each person on the team can speak up, contribute ideas, and critique ideas. Everyone gets their turn to speak and meetings are not dominated by a couple of individuals.

2. Motivate yourself and others by making choices that put you in control.

It turns out that the need for control is pretty fundamentally hard wired into us from an early age (I don’t have kids, but my friends that do tell me this is something they experience frequently from the age of about 2). A perceived lack of control over a difficult of demanding task can be stifling for our motivation (just ask any student approaching revision for exams!) But as adults we can use this to our advantage. For ourselves, approaching draining or difficult tasks can be easier if we start by framing a choice (choose the location for a difficult meeting, taking control of your availability). When managing others it can be incredibly powerful and motivating to pass control to them – allow them to take key decisions relating to the project. This also ties in with agile principles.

3. Build mental models

Our brains are set up to build models of the world around us and constantly evaluate information received against the model (David Eagleman writes more on this in his excellent book on neuroscience, incognito). We can harness this in a working environment by constantly building a model of how we expect a given day, interaction, meeting or project to play out. Evaluating what happens in reality relative to this model can help better decision making. In the book, Charles Duhigg uses some excellent contrasting examples of aviation incidents to really bring this home.

4. Make data disfluent, in order to understand it better

We live in a world that has never been richer in terms of data. We each generate huge amounts of data everyday and carry in our pockets devices capable of processing data that previous generations couldn’t dream of. But how do we turn that data into actual information and insights?

Paradoxically a great way of doing this is often to go back to basics. Make the data harder to interact with at first. Draw graphs by hand, write datapoints out longhand on flash cards. By doing this we are forced to interact with the data more. We build theories about what the data contains, and in testing these theories we learn the important lessons. This is also why taking handwritten notes can be more powerful than typing notes, precisely because it is MORE labour intensive.

There’s plenty more in this very readable book, granted not all the concepts are revolutionary, but I would be surprised if you couldn’t find a few real actionable insights to take away and apply day to day. I certainly did and I look forward to implementing these with my team.

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