Friday, September 22, 2017

A Review of Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg is a pseudo-sequel to his first book The Power of Habit. Duhigg is a New York Times reporter with an interest in productivity and efficiency.  While his first book looked at how habits are formed and shape us, Smarter, Faster, Better looks at how those habits fit into a larger context of interpersonal teams and setting larger goals in life.

As Duhigg notes, people are more motivated simply by being given the appearance of control. For example, nursing home residents live longer when they are giving a plant to care for, or given more leeway in how they structure their day. The choices that are most powerful in generating motivation are the decisions that convince us that we are in control, and that our actions have some larger meaning.

Many people are starting to note how modern life, despite all its conveniences, has engendered a form of malaise (pithily summarized by Louis CK as "Everything is amazing, and nobody's happy").

To combat this, we have to endow are actions with purpose. As Duhigg argues, when we are faced with unpleasant chores or choices, we must ask ourselves, "Why?" As in, what greater goal does this serve. I think this works because it forces us to avoid the strong human tendency to focus on the present and urge to procrastinate and instead, focus on the future payoff. This better aligns the incentives of the present self with the future self. To paraphrase Duhigg, "Self motivation is a choice we make because it is part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that needs doing."

This framework can be expanded to working in groups. To be successful, any group needs some measure of psychological safety, which is the belief that the group is a safe place for taking risks. Good teams have everyone contributing in nearly equal amounts, with team members in sync with each other, reading each other's emotional states well. The best approach for establishing this psychological safety is by the team leader demonstrating those characteristics. Duhigg notes that all this leads to a surprising conclusion: how teams work matters more than who is on them.

Looking at the work done at Google and elsewhere, Duhigg finds that good teams have five key norms, and good team leaders demonstrate 8 good qualities (from Goolge's Project Oxygen). The key norms are:
  • Belief that work is important
  • Work is personally meaningful
  • Psychological safety
  • Know that other members are dependable
  • Clear goals and defined roles
The 8 team leader qualities are:
  • Good coach
  • Empowers and does not micromanage
  • Has clear vision and strategy
  • Helps with career development
  • Has key technical skills
  • Listens and shares info
  • Results oriented
  • Expresses interest and concern in subordinates' success and well-being

Despite forming a good team, the group still has to actively combat cognitive tunneling, both as individuals and as a whole. Cognitive tunneling is a mental error that occurs when one is forced to switch rapidly between tasks, causing people to fall back on reactive thinking. Nobel laureate psychologist/behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman labels these two ways of thinking as System 1 and System 2. Where as System 1 is slow and deliberate, System 2 uses a system of heuristics to quickly (but not necessarily accurately) solve problems at hand.

As Shane Parrish of Farnam Street blog and Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway argue, mental models helps to minimize the risk of such reactive thinking and increase the odds of making the correct response. Making a habit of trying to forecast outcomes will make one less likely to err over time.

Duhigg then looks at other organizations to see how they tried to solve the collective action problem, the challenge of aligning everyone's individual actions towards a shared goal. At GE, they used a system of SMART goals. SMART stands for:
  • S: Specific "I will run 5 miles."
  • M: Measurable "Measure 5 miles."
  • A: Achievable "I've run 3 before, so 5 is doable."
  • R: Realistic "Fits in schedule after work."
  • T: Timeline "Weekly to monthly perspective - will get to 5 miles by first of next month."
However, further investigation showed that a SMART goal was not enough. Generally, these goals create a bias towards attainable targets, the low-hanging fruit. These should be paired with stretch goals. Unlike SMART goals, there is no clear path to a stretch goal, at least not yet. The path will have to be invented.

While Duhigg focused on companies, these norms can be applied to any organization. He found that companies fall into one of five cultural types:
- Star: reward best and brightest, highest success and highest fail rates; least likely to make it to IPO
- Engineer: team based, no stars, but strong together; grow quickly
- Bureaucracy
- Autocracy
- Commitment: value slow, steady growth; outperformed every other type of firm; not one of them failed in the study; also fastest to go public, highest profitability ratios, leaner, fewer middle managers

Ultimately, any system is only as strong as its people. Finding the best people is key to success. What defines such people? They are the ones who perseverate on failure but are not paralyzed by it. They think more about their experiences than other pople, according to Steve Jobs. They take the stress that comes with any challenge and use it as a catalyst for growth. They force themselves to keep questioning their choices instead of falling prey to satisfaction bias.

Duhigg is a gifted writer who writes lucidly about a topic that can be challenging to digest at times. While there is no silver bullet to becoming "Smarter, Faster, Better", the book points at many avenues one can use to improve themselves and their teams in order to achieve their goals.