Smarter Faster Better Book Review: 3 Lessons Learned

In March, I met Charles Duhigg at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto when he spoke about his new book, “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.” In this article, you will learn a few insights from the book. The book covers eight areas where we can increase performance (e.g. motivation, goals, team performance and others). In this review, I will highlight four areas. If you want to go deeper, read the book.


Overall, I found the book to be an insightful discussion of new insights and methods to boost productivity, innovation and achievement. Duhigg brings several gifts to bear on the project including the ability to select great examples, interview a variety of subjects, and summarize research papers. In some respects, this book reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s work (“Outliers” is my favorite Gladwell book). Duhigg does well to include “A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas” at the end of the book to help readers with next steps.

Duhigg’s approach to the book weaves together first hand interviews, academic research and other sources. I’m impressed by the sheer variety of interviews that Duhigg completed including Google’s People Analytics group, Israeli generals and airline pilots. Duhigg also does excellent work in summarizing academic research articles from various fields and pulling out the relevant insights.

Lesson 1: Improve Goal Achievement

Setting and achieving goals is an important skill and practice for everyone to develop. Previously, I wrote about two types of goals: How To Develop Goals: Habits vs Outcomes. Duhigg’s contribution to goal setting is combine the vision of stretch goals with the practical focus of SMART goals. Why is this approach important? Duhigg shares the example of General Electric where staff often set SMART goals and routinely achieved them. There was just one problem – the goals pursued did not have much impact. This is a way to ensure that your goal setting energy are focused on achieving true value.


There is an important caveat to the power of stretch goals, however. Studies show that if a stretch goal is audacious, it can spark innovation. It can also cause panic and convince people that success is impossible because the goal is too big. There is a fine line between an ambition that helps people achieve something amazing and one that crashes morale… Stretch goals, paired with SMART thinking, can help put the impossible within reach.

Application: To create BIG goals, start with Michael Hyatt’s goal setting suggestion (“What I like to do is set a goal that’s delusional and then dial it back a few clicks” ). Next, use a focused tool like the Freedom Journal. Project managers can also apply their skills of building work breakdown structures to create the details.

Lesson 2: Become An Innovation Broker – The Import-Export Creativity Solution

“This is not creativity born of genius. It is creativity as an import-export business. ” sociologist Ronald Burt

Innovation remains a mysterious and powerful process in many organizations.  Yet Duhigg shows that certain practices that tend to increase innovation. Becoming an innovation broker, a phrase coined by Ronald Burt, is a great method to use. Rather than seeking to create brand new products from scratch, innovation brokers transfer ideas between sectors and industries. As an example, Duhigg presents the creation of highly successful musical “West Side Story” which found success by combining concepts areas from several areas (e.g. 1950s gang novels, classical dance and other sources). Reading broadly across several areas and observing different areas is one way to apply this insight. This approach has also been applied in the industrial setting.


“Fostering creativity by juxtaposing old ideas in original ways isn’t new. Historians have noted that most of Thomas Edison’s inventions were the result of important ideas from one area of science into another…. A 1997 study of consumer product design firm IDEO found that most of the company’s biggest successes originated as ‘combinations of existing knowledge from disparate industries.’ IDEO’s designers created a top-selling water bottle, for example, by mixing a standard water carafe with the leak proof nozzle of a shampoo container.”

Application: If you are in a software development company, what are ideas that you could borrow from fashion, hotels or other industries? Looking for a tactical way to get started? I recall a great suggestion from one of Daniel Pink‘s books. Pick up a magazine for an industry or topic that you know nothing about and start reading it. An artist might pick up Popular Science, a non-profit leader might read FORTUNE and a project manager might find Success magazine helpful.

Lesson 3: Learn How To Overcome “Information Blindness” – How People Can Extract Insights From Overwhelming Information

Using data to make better decisions is a growing trend. Medical researchers emphasize the value of evidence based medicine. The Lean Startup concept of actionable metrics described by Eric Ries also makes the case for data that can be used. The demand to obtain data and use it has led to the rise of data science. Overall, this is an exciting trend!

Unfortunately, successful implementation is a major challenge. Duhigg reports a detailed case studies of teachers and staff in Cincinnati where they were equipped with detailed statistics and online dashboards. Despite the wealth of data and efforts to use it, little improvement occurred. Fortunately, Cincinnati turned the situation around. Learn how they changed their approach to derive greater value from data. Every organization that produces reports and databases can find inspiration in this example.


“In 2008, the Elementary Initiative was launched. As part of that reform, Johnson’s principal mandated that all teachers had to spend at least two afternoons per month in the school’s new data room. Around a conference table, teachers were forced to participate in exercises that made data collection and statistical tabulation even more time consuming. [Each teacher made an index card with handwritten data on each student]…. “It was intensely boring. And frankly, it seemed redundant because all this information was already available on the students’ online dashboards… ‘The rule was that everyone had to actually handle the cards, physically move them around.’… “Handling the cards, she found, gave her a more granular sense of each student’s strengths and weaknesses..”

The key insight is to break down the information in small and tangible components. In the above case, data about a whole class of students did not provide much insight for teachers. In contrast, going a level deeper into insight about individuals proved more helpful.

Above and beyond the specific insight, there is a more general process at play. The teachers began to experiment with the data and play with different ways to organize the data. A willingness to experiment with data produces insights in a way that highly polished dashboards cannot.

Application: Instead of accepting management reports as produced, start by asking different questions. For example, use different units of measure. If you typically receive sales volume reports at a monthly level, consider looking at a weekly or hourly level to see if there are other interesting patterns.

Resource: Want to become a data science? Read my article on InfoWorld for additional insights: “Career boost: Break into data science” on InfoWorld


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2 thoughts on “Smarter Faster Better Book Review: 3 Lessons Learned

  1. Interesting to go through the book review. It also talks of Self Disciplines which I could sense it’s basic step towards smart goals. Interested to have a copy of the same book.