Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Book Review: Smarter Faster Better (2016)

I read this book in early September. My review comes after a month's lag, so I am not fresh on the details of the book, and can't totally recall my reactions while reading each chapter. However, sometimes it is better to write a review not afresh, but after some gestation period, so you can provide a more balanced review.

Overall I liked the book. It is a fun read. Charles Duhigg is a great story teller. Maybe to a fault. In retrospect I think the stories diluted the focus of the book, and the real ideas/tips for becoming "smarter, faster, better" got shortchanged. After I briefly describe each chapter, I will revisit this point at the end of this post.

The first chapter is "Motivation". What motivates us to work hard and get after it? There is a physiological component to motivation regulated by the "striatum" in the subcortical part of the forebrain, a critical component of the reward system. This chapter talks about the case of a very successful businessman who got a minor stroke in striatum and lost all interest in business and life. This chapter also presents a story from Marines bootcamp, and how the Marines find the motivation to endure through the tough challenge exercises. Yet another story in the first chapter is about mundanely subversive/rebellious behavior by the elderly in nursing houses. The common theme about all three stories, which is the key for motivation, is the concept of "choice". The elderly who displays minor acts of rebellion/subversiveness remain healthy and function longer, because they are exercising their power to choose, and not blindly obey. In the case of the businessman who lost his interest to live and succeed, his wife relentlessly helps him make small choices, and overtime he starts to recover. In the case of the Marines, their commanders train them to make choices and display "ownership". (In another recent book "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willinks and Leif Babin explore this issue.) When facing great challenges, the best way to get started is by making some choices. Albeit tiny, the choices we make give us a sense of control, takes us out of the frame of mind of learned helplessness and victimhood, and we start to exercise our internal locus of control. Another point made through the Marines bootcamp story is to keep "a big vision" to motivate you in following your goals. When we are feeling down, we should ask ourselves "why" we choose to endure these hardship, and get the big vision to motivate us to inch along to that direction.

The second chapter is "Teams". It presents the story of Julia as she graduates from Yale School of Management and joins Google's People Analytics group to investigate what makes teams more effective. Yes, there is no surprise: having diverse teams is better. But, surprisingly, the ultimate factor in effectiveness of teams is the psychological safety: do team members feel safe in expressing and defending opinions? The chapter also tells about the story of two hospital wards, one with high mistake rates, and the other with low mistake rates. In a twist ending, it turns out that the ward with lower mistake rates is not better, but that the members feel unsafe about reporting mistakes and mistakes are simply not accounted for. The ward with the higher mistake rates turns out to be the better functioning ward, because the members report every mistake, and those mistakes are mostly smaller mistakes and measures are taken to correct them before they escalate to critical problems. Finally, the chapter tells colorful stories about the good olden days of the Saturday Night Live, and how a team of misfits and rebels,argue each other continuously but manage to put on a fantastic show every weekend.

The third chapter is "Focus". It turns out too much focus could be a bad thing, because it can lead to a tunnel-vision of attention. This point was driven home by the heart-wrenching story of Air France Flight 447. What a nightmare! I got very uncomfortable even by reading the account of it. (Charles Duhigg is a great story teller, and managed to climb the tension/tragedy of the story expertly.) The pilots tunnel-vision to a wrong measure/lead, and things gradually spiral worse and worse. I almost started to yell, "how could you get things so wrong?". This plane could not possibly have gone down, yet there it does like a slow-motion trainwreck (taking place at an altitude of 30,000 feet). The chapter also tells the story of Qantas Flight 32, the most damaged Airbus A380 ever to land safely. The pilot managed to achieve this by thinking of the plane as a simple Cessna plane, and not getting tunneled into irrelevant metrics/leads, and staying vigilant by keeping this simple but holistic mental model in mind. The pilot and copilots kept their options open, did not delegate thinking, and managed to make good decisions under stress by the power of their mental model for the plane. The chapter also tells the story of nurse Darlene: she had the mental model of what a healthy baby should look like, and was able to recognized problematic babies much earlier and save their lives. The take home message from this chapter is that you should have narratives about what to focus and what to ignore and mental models of the process (which you constantly reevaluate and readjust), so you can stay vigilant and prepared.

The fourth chapter is on "Goal setting". The chapter has two very engaging stories: one about General Electrics, and the other about the Yom Kippur war, and makes points about how to set smart goals without getting too carried away. A smart goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, has timeline (see, it is an acronym). The chapter first makes this point through the GE story, and then says, smart goals are not enough, you also need to have stretch goals, and makes this point in the second half of the GE story. The stretch goals are there to push the limits; you can't grow a system unless you strain it some. This brings the antifragility concept to mind. Through the Yom Kippur War story the chapter drives the point that, you shouldn't get too obsessed about your goals that you get carried away and rule out obstacles/threats to your strategy as very low-risk.

The fifth chapter is about "Managing others". Through two stories, General Motors Toyota partnership story and a kidnapping case FBI successfully solved, it makes points about agile thinking and building a culture of thrust. The stories are again engaging, but at this point, I was hoping that there would be less stories, because I was losing the thread of smarter, faster, better. Again it takes a special talent to weave two very unrelated stories to make a somewhat coherent case, but I got weary of following the stories and trying to figure out how these relate to the themes of other chapters and the other 10 stories told on those chapters. At this point, I declared maximum story saturation for myself.

The sixth chapter is about "Decision Making". The story is about how Annie Duke won the 2004 Tournament of Champions for poker. Again an engaging story, and there is some connection to how to weigh out possible future outcomes when planning. While the connection of poker and weighing possible future outcomes through Bayesian reasoning is literal, I wished that instead of reading a lengthy poker story I could read about more concrete and applicable tactics/strategies about decision making and weighing out possible outcomes.

The seventh chapter is about "Innovation". It tells the story of Disney's Frozen and also there is a story about creation of "West Side Story" (emphasis mine). I tried to remember back to what was the insight in this chapter, but couldn't recall a significant one. When I looked up the chapter again, I found that the insight was "creativity is just problem solving". So I was not much off the mark.

The final chapter is about "Absorbing Data". The lesson here is that even if you collect data and use data processing/visualization, if you are not internalizing the results, these are all for vain. This lesson was told through the story of some teachers that analyzed student evaluation data by hand, made up stories/hypothesis about how to interpret these, and put effort in the process, which helped improve the success of Cincinnati's public schools. The problem with relying on automation of analysis is that, it would be easy come easy go. If you haven't thought about it and internalize it, you didn't get benefit from it. You can't delegate thinking to computers (at least not yet).

In conclusion, I think Duhigg is a great story teller, and he overdid that in this book. Yes, the stories were super engaging, but they are just anecdotes and you can come up with many other stories to make counterpoints. Instead of so many stories, I would have loved to read more tips/ideas/heuristics about how to get smarter, faster, better, and more concrete application use cases.

The subtitle of the book promises us "the secrets of being productive in life and business", and, of course, the book fails to deliver that. Because there is no secret. There is no silver bullet for avoiding failures, and no bulletproof recipe for success. There is no shortcut. To be smarter, faster, and better, you should become smarter, faster, and better. Tips, ideas, even paradigm shifts may give us only some boost in getting there. Becoming smarter, faster, and better is a constant inward battle where we have to continuously struggle to earn our badges.

1 comment:

Kien Tran said...

Thank you for sharing your opinion. I used to be obsessed with reading books that talk about strategies for how to become more successful in life and as a scientist. I had several books about that and still cannot stop looking at that kind of books whenever I see them around. Those strategies/tips sound delicious to me; they make perfect sense; they will make me become more successful for sure. However, it is obviously impossible to follow all the great strategies at once. If I could do so, I would become a fantastic person without stress coming from all the work. Overtime, I realize each of those books comes from one or a few authors, so their experiences are very personal or individuals that they are not applicable for everyone. Even though the authors have the tendency to share what help them become more successful, they cannot claim or guarantee that those strategies will certainly work for others. Experiences have to be earned by individuals and success, as you mentioned above, does not strictly accomplished by doing certain things in one particular way, but success comes from multiple ways which are waiting for people to explore. The ones who spend more time and work harder will explore further and broader, so they have a higher chance of finding greater opportunities to grow and develop and...succeed. Success is also defined by people's expectations on themselves and people's dreams. Small steps are still considered success, but a complete huge goal still can be considered success; it depends on one individual's expectations and dreams. I have a habit of setting very big goals, they are measurable, realistic, and accomplishable. Before, I did not consider each step is a success but I was too focused on the final outcome that I forgot to enjoy my progress and look at other opportunities along the way. I was just too worried about "if I fail, it will be a shame on me." I never failed before, it is not surprising because I have lived only for a bit more than 20 years, everything is still under good control, and I have passed everything I planned. But now I am going off to grad school for my PhD, so this is a huge step; it is very easy to fail to be admitted this year. It will be a big shame on me because I cannot stand such a big failure. I have never been this stressed, but after hearing real stories from other grad students and professors, I became more open-minded and more confident to do my best and welcome the failure if it happens. Everything in life is a valuable lesson, even failure. Every step always opens more than one doors that can lead to my dreams or even other dreams that I have never seen in my mind before. Now, I know that my previous thinking of success was not an ideal way to accomplish my goals. Success is when I enjoy my work, devote my soul into the work, be open-minded for other possibilities, and feel accomplished at every step I set for a particular time frame.

Thank you

Kien Tran