BOOK REVIEW: How to work smarter, faster, and better

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive. By Charles Duhigg

To succeed today, people must decide for themselves how to spend their time and allocate their energy for best economic effect.

According to Duhigg, the key to being productive relies on any of 8 elements: being self-motivated, working well with teams, focusing, goal-setting, managing others, decision-making, innovation, and absorbing data. Each of the elements Duhigg illustrates with case studies that cleverly and engagingly highlight critical issues. These case studies serve the additional purpose of cementing the key ideas as only a compelling story can.

I will address only the first two.

“Self-help books and leadership manuals often portray self-motivation as a static feature of our personality” Duhigg explains. However, motivation is more like a skill that can be learned and developed.

A prerequisite for feeling motivated is the belief that you have authority over your actions and surroundings. When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and exert themselves more. The very instinct for control is central to brain development, as we see when our own children want to feed themselves as soon as they think they know how, and resist being fed.

This is what is meant by the ‘locus of control’, which has been a major topic of psychological study since the 1950s. If we feel a sense of control, we’re more willing to perform. That being the case, the first step in creating motivation comes from giving oneself and others the opportunities to make choices that demonstrate a sense of autonomy and self-determination.

And this is true for almost any choice: the specifics matter less than the assertion of control.

Telling a child that her hard work is the reason for her good grades has been shown to activate this internal locus of control, because hard work is something we can decide to do. Complimenting the same student on her intelligence only serves to activate an ‘external’ locus of control.

The US Marine corps trains by deliberately creating situations where recruits are expected to take control, just so they start to learn how good it feels. “We praise people for doing things that are hard. That’s how they learn to believe they can do them.”

When starting a new task, or confronting an unpleasant one, we should take a moment to ask ourselves “why” we are doing this. This question can allow one to recognize how small chores for which one has little motivation, can have outsize emotional rewards. Self-motivation is a choice we can control to achieve something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task.

The second issue concerns teams. Most work today is done in teams, making this understanding a critical part of success.

For decades we have thought effective teams were a function of who was on the team, and much of the effort put into team-building was focused on this issue.

For six consecutive years, Google has been ranked by Fortune magazine as one of America’s top workplaces. It has devoted considerable resources to study what would make their 55,000 employees happy and productive based on facts - of which they have plenty.

Their Project Aristotle looked at 180 teams from all over the company, only to find that there was nothing that indicated that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds, made any difference.

This led their researcher to focus on ‘group norms’ - the traditions, behavioural standards, and unwritten rules that govern functioning, and cause employees to feel better or worse in some teams but not others.

So, which norms were most crucial? One critical norm was making people feel comfortable speaking, so they can suggest ideas without fear of retribution. This norm discourages people from making harsh judgments.

The team that created the extraordinarily successful and long-running TV comedy show, Saturday Night Live, was reputed to be so successful because they enjoyed a communal culture that replaced individual needs. In fact, there was a great deal of competitiveness and infighting.

“You know that saying, ‘There’s no I in TEAM’?” founder Lorne Michaels told Duhigg. “My goal was the opposite of that. All I wanted were a bunch of I’s. I wanted everyone to hear each other, but no one to disappear into the group.” In fact, Michaels had chosen everyone precisely because of their disparate tastes.

Putting ten smart people in a room doesn’t mean they will solve problems intelligently. In fact, smart people were often outperformed by groups consisting of people who had scored lower on intelligence tests.

Researchers conclude that good teams had succeeded not because of innate qualities of team members, but because of how they treated one another. The right norms could raise the collective intelligence of mediocre thinkers. The wrong norms could hobble a group made up of people who, on their own, were all exceptionally bright.

Researchers found that there were two behaviours that all the good teams shared. First, the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion, not all the time but by the end of the day. This is called “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”

The second is that good teams have “high average social sensitivity”. They were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces.

Giving everyone a voice and finding people willing to be sensitive enough to listen to one another, explains why Saturday Night Live has existed for forty years. Teammates don’t have to be friends. The teams with the highest levels of psychological safety were ones where leaders ensured that everyone had an equal voice, and encouraged social sensitivity among teammates.

In general, the route to establishing this psychological safety begins with the team’s leader.

There are two good reasons for reading this book. It is replete with fascinating studies that are worth knowing. Then, there is much to learn that will enrich your ability to work smarter, faster and better. It is a valuable complement to other books on the subject.

Insights              High -+--- Low

Practical              High ----+ Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

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