Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (REVIEW)

Smartcuts By Shane Snow Book Review

Ever since I read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcom Gladwell, I have been fascinated with productivity and success. I recently read Shane Snow‘s book, “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.”

In sum, it is a good book that puts forward compelling principles and provides fascinating stories to support them. I loved reading about the variety of “smartcuts” Snow found in shoe design, space technology, baby incubators and more.

Hacking The Ladder: Using the “Sinatra Principle” To Get Ahead

What comes to mind when you think of the pinnacle of achievement in a profession? You might think about someone who is highly experienced, a person who has climbed the ranks over time. Certainly, that’s one approach to take. Snow presents interesting data from U.S. Presidential history to suggest that paying your dues is not the only way to the top. He found that several Presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and John F Kennedy became Presidents with relatively little experience in national politics. How does that work?

They use the “Sinatra Principle” to leverage credibility from another field. Snow is referencing Frank Sinatra’s famous song “New York New York” whose lyrics include “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” In our world, we might say the same thing about working at Google. If Jenny Blake was successful at Google, then we should get her books and programs. In the case of Presidential politics, how does this work? The “outsider” candidates brought credibility and leadership skill from another area (e.g. Eisenhower’s success in the Second World War) and¬†transfer it to the political arena.

Application: How can you reach your goals faster by transferring credibility from one area of achievement to another?

Training With Masters: How To 2X Your Growth Through Mentorship

Getting ahead all by yourself is difficult and rare. Even Vincent Van Gogh had support (and financial assistance) from his brother Theo. In “Smartcuts,” Snow points out the value of learning from masters. It’s an important idea that other authors have also covered – I recall the story of scientist Michael Faraday’s apprenticeship as told in Robert Greene‘s excellent book “Mastery.” Snow takes a different approach here by emphasizing obsessive study. Snow’s research also suggests that organic mentorship efforts tend to be the most successful (i.e. one person reaching out to another without an organization organizing the interaction).

In this chapter, he looks at the rise of noted comedians Louis CK and Jimmy Fallon. As a young man, Fallon was dead set on joining Saturday Night Live. To pursue that goal, he worked with two types of mentor: a traditional, in-person mentor in the form of his manager and a distant mentor, namely studying other comedians such as Adam Sandler. On a related note, it was great to take career insights from comedians. We all hear about start-ups, traditional professionals and CEOs in the business media. Learning principles from a new profession was valuable.

Application: Live mentors and other models are most effective in your growth if you seek them out and model their success. Waiting for your employer to organize mentorship tends to be less successful. In addition, look for mentors in books and history who can inspire you.

Rapid Feedback: Decide How To Use Feedback Effectively.

Consider the difference in practicing a skill by yourself versus getting steady feedback. Which scenario do you think will make the difference in boosting your results? Clearly, feedback makes a difference. Snow pushes beyond that observation to ask how feedback is best used. One approach is to intently observe others fail and draw from that experience. Snow cites research on surgeons who improved after observing medical mistakes:

On the other hand, we tend to pin our successes on internal factors. When they failed [at performing the medical procured], it was because of bad luck. It was hard to see. The patient was unstable. There wasn’t enough time… When doctors failed due to what they perceived as bad luck, they didn’t tend to work any smarter the next time… When someone else fails, we blame his or her lack of effort or ability. For the cardiac surgeons, this made the failure of a colleague quite valuable. Since it was that guy’s fault, fellow surgeons instinctually zeroed in on the mistakes. “I’ll make sure not to do that,” they said subconsciously. And they got better at the surgery.

This principle suggests that the practice of lessons learned have great potential as a feedback mechanism. Building on Snow’s surgeon example, close observation of a failure event makes the difference. I wonder if reading a traditional lessons learned report or end of project report would have the same feedback value.

Application: Observe others around you who practice a similar profession. What mistakes are they making that you can avoid?

Simplicity: Inside An Innovative Solution To Saving Babies

Constraints and creativity have an interesting relationship. If you have endless resources, you may not come up with experimental or breakthrough ideas. In contrast, if increasing the budget by $1 million is simply not available, then you have to find other solutions. In the project world, we’re used to change requests, “gold plating” (i.e. staff adding extra features they believe to be valuable but which are not specified in the project plan) and similar activities. What if you had to achieve results and a higher budget was not available?

That’s the case presented by Snow in this case. The challenge? How to save more premature babies in developing countries? The standard solution in the developed world is to use incubators, which often cost over $20,000 each and require training to use effectively. Initially, Jane Chen’s team looked at cutting costs or making an inexpensive glass box. Those efforts did not lead anywhere. At that point, the team analyzed an incubator at a feature level: what were the features of an incubator which features provided the greatest benefit? Their conclusion: providing consistent warmth was the most valuable feature. This insight led to Embrace, an inexpensive solution that does not require electricity, significant training or a hospital. It has saved many lives.

Curious to know more about the Embrace story? Watch Jane Chen’s TED Talk:¬†A warm embrace that saves lives.

Application: How could you achieve more of your project goals by radically simplifying the project requirements? Consider breaking down your wish list of features and determine which features add the most value.


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