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Book Review: Smarter, Faster, Better
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Book Review: Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

Smarter, Faster, Better

Written by: Charles Duhigg. New York, NY: Random House, 2016. 380 pages. US$28.00 (hardcover).
Reviewed by: Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, NPDP, Simple-PDH and Global NP Solutions, LLC

Smarter, Faster, Better

Who among us does not wish to improve his or her productivity? Charles Duhigg’s well-researched, new book, Smarter, Faster, Better, offers several tips we can apply to our own lives, as well as to our work teams, to improve productivity and efficiency.

Chapter 1, for instance, on the topic of motivation teaches us that making even small decisions can increase our control in a situation leading to higher degrees of accomplishment. Duhigg relays a study of nursing home patients who were labelled “subversive” by the researchers. This group of patients often traded food at meal times in order to construct a meal of their choosing. While having chocolate cake may not seem to be a big decision in our lives, trading desserts allowed the nursing home residents to take control of choices which led to higher self-motivation. The group of “subversives” had the same illnesses as the groups of nursing home patients who simply ate the meal as presented. Yet, the former group lived longer, were healthier and more engaged in activities.

Takeaway Tip: Allow team members to make decisions on both small and large agenda items in order to sustain motivation.

Next, Chapter 2 discusses teams in detail. It should come as no surprise that Duhigg’s research demonstrates that teams with a high degree of diversity are more creative and productive and they generate better results. However, we have to be careful in our definition of “diversity.” Diversity of experience weighed more heavily than diversity of gender or race according to research presented in Smarter, Faster, Better.

Takeaway Tip: Creativity is enhanced when team members are selected among individuals with a variety of work experiences, educational backgrounds and professional affiliations.

To illustrate that improving productivity in the workplace comes from focus, Duhigg shares stories of two emergencies on airplanes. One ended tragically while the other aircraft landed safely. In the first case, pilots were overly focused on data and could not interpret the signals outside of a narrow range of normal operating conditions. In the latter situation, the pilots had thoroughly discussed emergency procedures as part of their pre-flight readiness check and were equipped with a variety of “mental models” that allowed them to address the emergency condition.

Takeaway Tip: Maintaining an adequate focus – not too intense and not too slight – is important for new product development teams to address customer needs throughout an innovation project.

Goal-setting and decision-making are topics of Chapter 4 and 6. We have all heard of setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound), yet accomplishing only strict metrics may cause us to miss the bigger picture. Instead, the author suggests we sub-divide our largest strategic objectives into several SMART goals, allowing us to simultaneously feel the joy of accomplishment while moving forward to seize the larger mission.

Takeaway Tip: New product development teams should split work into smaller segments (e.g. stages or phases) in order to manage a breakthrough innovation.

Duhigg specifically addresses innovation in Chapter 7 with examples from the American television show Saturday Night Live. Innovation is most successful when team members are diverse in experience (as we learned in Chapter 2) and the leader allows open dialogue. When teams get “stuck,” the author’s research shows that even small changes in the team dynamics can lead to increased creativity and better solutions.

Takeaway Tip: Occasionally change team members or by add a co-leader to a project in order to bring forth new insights for the innovation. Continuous customer evaluations can also generate insights for creativity and new solutions.

Finally, Chapter 8 addresses the overwhelming amount of data to which we are exposed. It turns out that data itself doesn’t improve our ability to innovate or be more productive. Instead, it is our application of data – turning it into information – that allows productivity increases. Smarter, Faster, Better specifically discusses using small experiments to gain information that can be applied to the next phase of improvement.

Takeaway Tip: This one isn’t surprising to effective new product development teams – continuous experimentation is a hallmark of success and is used extensively in design thinking.

Smarter, Faster, Better is an enjoyable book to read and offers several applicable tips for improving productivity. Duhigg’s stories and research studies are conveyed in a conversational narrative yet are professional in nature so that we can learn how to become more productive in our own new product and innovation teams. This book is recommended for any new product development practitioner trying to improve his or her own productivity, creativity and efficiency.

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