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Review: Smarter Faster Better – The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

smarter faster betterThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

By Charles Duhigg

Doubleday Canada


Your dream team gives you nightmares.

You recruited your best and brightest employees to work on a mission critical project.

You assumed the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

But the parts aren’t fitting together and you’re running out of runway.

Google searched and found the key to building better teams. The company spent two years surveying employees, studying 180 teams, collecting tens of thousands of pieces of data and building dozens of software programs to run the numbers and analyze trends.

“The biggest thing you should take away from this work is that how teams work matters, in a lot of ways, more than who is on them,” says Laszlo Bock, head of Google’s People Operations department. “We think we need superstars. But that’s not what our research found. You can take a team of average performers, and if you teach them to interact the right way, they’ll do things no superstar could ever accomplish.”

Teams interact the right way when they feel psychologically safe. When they feel safe, teams don’t shy away from having the honest conversations and tough debates that lead to better decisions. There’s no fear of reprisals or retribution and team members can be counted on to look out for one another.

“Teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels,” says Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times and author of Smarter Faster Better.

Team leaders set the tone. If you want a productive team, resist the urge to interrupt and interject. Summarize what’s being said to prove you’re listening.  Be good at reading emotions and knowing when someone feels frustrated, upset or left out. Be quick to resolve team conflicts. And make sure everyone speaks at least once before bringing a meeting to a close.

“There are always good reasons for choosing behaviors that undermine psychological safety,” says Duhigg. “It is often more efficient to cut off debate, to make a quick decision, to listen to whoever knows the most and ask others to hold their tongues. But a team will become an amplification of its internal culture, for better or worse. Study after study shows that while psychological safety might be less efficient in the short run, it’s more productive over time.”

Along with showing how to build better teams, Duhigg looks at how we can be smarter and more productive when it comes to motivation, innovation, focus, goal setting, managing others, making decisions and absorbing data.

“Connecting these eight ideas is a powerful underlying principle,” says Duhigg, who tells dozens of stories that explain the latest in neuroscience, psychology and behavioral economics. “Productivity isn’t about working more or sweating harder. It’s not simply a product of spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices.

“Productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways. The way we choose to see ourselves and frame daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves, and the easy goals we ignore; the sense of community we build among teammates; the creative cultures we establish as leaders. These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.”

If you’re bringing people together to work on a project, save yourself some nightmares. Have everyone read and discuss Duhigg’s chapter on teamwork as their first assignment.

@jayrobb lives in Hamilton and serves as the Director of Communications for Mohawk College.


Review: Illuminate – Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols by Duarte and Sanchez

illuminateThis review first ran in the March 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

By Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

Portfolio / Penguin


Prepare to be underwhelmed when you tell us a project will trigger transformational change.

Most of us won’t share your enthusiasm.

Transformational change is a thrill ride when you’re in the driver’s seat. You’re restless and ready to roll. You’ve seen the future and what’s on the horizon.  You know that standing still will get us left behind or run over.  And you’re convinced that what’s next is superior in every way to where we’re at right now.

But we’re in the passenger seat and our view’s more terrifying than thrilling. We don’t know where we’re going or why we need to go.

For some of us, this isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve ridden the Transformational Change Express before and found ourselves stranded a few stops short of the Promised Land.

And for others, the ride seems as exhausting as a cross-Canada summer roadtrip in a car with busted air conditioning and the K-Tell Mini Pop Kids belting out the hits from the backseat.

So it’s not enough to just talk about transformational change. You need to step up and light the way if you want us to follow.

“To boldly go into the future is one thing. To get others to go there with you is another entirely,” say Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, authors of Illuminate and executives with the largest design firm in Silicon Valley.

“The leader’s role, our role, is to light the way for your team through empathetic communications – to be a torchbearer,” says Duarte and Sanchez. “Torchbearers are dreamers, pioneers and scouts who are energized to light the path for travelers. You may see the path ahead with clarity but the outcome of your venture is not really up to you. Your idea is the spark, but you need others to carry the fire on the long trek ahead.”

Luckily for you, there’s a torchbearer’s toolkit. In it you’ll find speeches, stories, ceremonies and symbols.

You give speeches to persuade. You tell stories to win hearts and minds. You hold ceremonies to celebrate milestones, build community and sustain our commitment.

And you put symbols into your speeches, stories and ceremonies. “Because of their resonance, symbols become the visual language of a social group. They express a people’s thoughts, feelings and values in a shorthand and sometimes highly charged way.”

The speeches you give, the stories you tell and the ceremonies you hold will vary depending on where we’re at in our journey.

Change happens in five stages and those stages make up what Duarte and Sanchez call the Venture Scape.

“Like a story, your Venture Scape has a beginning, middle and end. Change has an identifiable pattern to it.”

Change starts with a dream stage where you tell and sell your vision for the future.  Your vision needs to be clear and compelling if we’re going to buy in.

The leap stage follows and this is where you need us to commit, take on new responsibilities and change our behaviors.

We then move into the fight stage. You need us to find the courage to be equal to the challenges ahead and gear up for battle.

The climb stage is where the going gets rough, our enthusiasm wanes and our resolve wavers. We’re not having fun anymore. We’re wondering if the sacrifice is worth the reward.

And then we finally cross the finish line at the arrival stage. It’s a time to celebrate and reflect on what’ve accomplished, whether we succeeded or fell short.

Starbucks, IBM and Apple are among the companies that Duarte and Sanchez use as case studies to show the power of synching speeches, stories, ceremonies and symbols to the five stage-Venture Scape.

With every case study, there was a leader who lit the way.  You won’t pull off transformational change without one. Duarte and Sanchez show how you can be the one.

“Some say being a torchbearer is a burden. Some say it’s a blessing. Either way, those who light the path are the ones who change the world.”