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Smarter Faster Better: Review

I started reading this book on a recent camping trip to Mackinaw City. I had allocated some time for hammocking, and since I get antsy in a hammock having a book to read was necessary. We chose this book to read for book club at work, that’s how I came across it. Here is what stood out to me:

Innovations are often a rearrangement of existing ideas. The author cites a couple of examples where nothing new was introduced, but a slight change in the environment led to breakthroughs. When the original script for Frozen did not connect with test groups, the writers hit a wall on how to finish it. At that point, they decided to make the lead writer a director. While this internally was not much of a change, it shifted the environment enough to consider looking at the story a different way. West Side Story used much of the same elements of story telling before, but it was put together differently. As an aspiring leader I can look to spur innovation by continued experimentation and avoid feeling stressed that ideas do not seem “new.” It is like the old adage, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Goal setting should include a mix of specific tasks that lead toward the goal as well as a “stretch goal” that serves as an umbrella for the SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound). GE implemented SMART goals and saw productivity increase, but after some time tapered off. Workers adhered to the SMART rubric, but felt like they had hit a rut. At this point they developed the idea of a stretch goal, which to me seems like a slightly more specific “vision.” A combination of both ensures that your SMART goals align to a greater purpose, and avoids falling into the template trap.

Mental models, when used properly, can give you an advantage in high pressure situations by reducing surprises. To me they sound like hypothetical visualizations of the future. For example, a pilot flying a Qantas airplane from Singapore to Australia hit unexpected problems, but visualized how he could solve the problem if the plane was a Cessna (of course the two are vastly different types, but the basic elements of flying are the same). He contrasts this with the crash of an Air France flight into the Atlantic ocean when the pilot entered into cognitive tunneling, and was not able to save the plane. Mental models can and should change if it appears the model is breaking down. For example, when a professional poker player realized that her opponent had constructed a mental model of her, she worked to break his mental model down through savvy plays that confused him. The author suggests doing some visualization of how upcoming events would play out (knowing what to talk about with your kids when you get home, or important meetings with superiors, etc). It sounded close to borderline inception, where you go down a “layer” and construct an alternate reality. I think it would be exhausting if you were always building mental models and adjusting them, how would you balance that with living in the moment? I don’t think the author advocates for constant modeling, but a compromise would have to be reached at some point.

Read this book: If you want a quick read (~300 pages, excludes bibliography and notes) furnished with detailed examples that explain each concept. The author makes it personal in the afterword by sharing how he used some of these concepts to write the book, which I found to be a personal touch. Duhigg is a great author and explains these concepts in illustrative ways. I personally enjoy reads full of contemporary examples, which is not in short supply for this book.

Do not read this book: I’m reaching a point where I’m seeing overlap in leadership concepts (e.g. psychological safety) in various books. As a result, some parts of this book were hard to get through. While mental modeling became the interesting concept I pulled from this book, I still left puzzled as to some of its implications.