I have a confession to make: While I am a voracious reader, particularly of literary fiction, I HATE business books. I went through a phase years ago of reading a bunch of the hot titles that you see lauded in the Wall Street Journal or on end-of-year “best of” lists, and to be honest, I was always disappointed. Here are my biggest problems with books about business and workplace productivity:
- They’re boring.
- They cherry-pick examples and case studies that support their theories while conveniently ignoring examples that disprove their hypotheses.
- They’re really, really boring.
- They often focus on very unlikely or exceptional stories (which are, by their nature, the exception) and make gigantic leaps or extrapolations on how your organization can do the same thing.
- They. Are. Just. So. Incredibly. Boring.
- The “solutions” or “roadmaps to success” are either head-smackingly obvious or totally impractical, especially for small to mid-size organizations (e.g., to solve problem “x” in your organization, simply do what Apple did and hire a team of 200 people, revamp your supply chain, restructure your entire company, etc.)
- Did I mention they’re boring?
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised with Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg is a reporter for The New York Times and is also the bestselling author of The Power of Habit.
I think what I like best about Smarter Faster Better is the approach the book takes, which is less sermon-on-the-mount and more about practical solutions. The book focuses on eight key concepts for everyday productivity: motivation; teams; focus; goal setting; managing others; decision making; innovation and absorbing data. Best of all, while the book has one foot planted firmly in analysis and the science of productivity, it’s told through really interesting stories and case studies.
For example, there was a great chapter on teams. The question of what makes for a killer team has been a tough nut for researchers to crack for quite a while. In fact, Google’s people analytics team launched a four-year study to determine how the best teams function. At first they hit a wall, as there didn’t seem to be a common thread – that is, it didn’t seem to matter if the people on the team were from like or dissimilar backgrounds, if they had tons of experience or a mix, contained superstars in their field or people with very high IQs, if they naturally got along or thrived on conflict, etc.
Finally, they discovered that it wasn’t really about the individuals in the group at all, but the way the team members interacted with one another. These “group norms” were really the key to understanding high-performing teams. So what makes a team great? Basically, it comes down to two general principles: “Teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels.”
If this idea of “psychological safety” seems a bit too touchy-feely, think again – the data is backing up how critical this is to creating a truly successful team. In fact, Google has actually given tools to employees that help evaluate if the members feel psychologically safe, and worksheets to help leaders and teammates improve their scores. Even the team at Saturday Night Live, a group often known for super-competitiveness and, at times, fierce infighting, has succeeded because Lorne Michaels has demonstrated an unusually high level of social sensitivity that he expects the cast and writers to mimic.
Finally, Smarter Faster Better ends with a chapter called “A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas” where Duhigg breaks down how to put the ideas discussed throughout the book into action.
How about you? What business book have you read recently that impressed you?