In Pursuit of Smarter, Better Leadership

May 30, 2017

Case categories include: Executive Development   Founder’s Insights   Leadership   

Every CEO I work with wants to be a more effective leader – even those who are incredibly successful by all “normal” standards. So when I saw Charles Duhigg’s new book, Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, at an airport bookstore, I had to pick it up.

Smarter Faster Better explores why some people get so much more done and with better results. Duhigg, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter, draws lessons from neuroscience and behavioral psychology to identify eight concepts for greater productivity. Although all eight concepts are valuable for improving individual productivity, I found the following three concepts particularly relevant to Alliance members.

Creating High-Performance Teams

Most people know that high-performing teams can outperform individuals working on their own. However, not every team is high performing, and poor teams can actually be less effective than individuals working alone.

Google ranks among the very best workplaces, and since the company studies virtually everything, it was only natural for them to create a “People Analytics” group to study the productivity and happiness levels of its 60,000 employees. According to Duhigg, Google first looked at why some managers were considered great, while others were average at best, and then created management training programs to upgrade its managers.

In the process, Google heard from employees who loved their managers but did not click with their team. Other employees had to deal with a poor manager, but felt their team was fantastic. As a result, Google launched Project Aristotle to learn why some teams were so much more effective than others. Yet, after exhaustive reviews of academic research gathering tons of data from 180 teams, Google couldn’t find any patterns. So the company pivoted and began to focus on how teams operated, instead of who was on them.

Digging deeper, Google found the common characteristic of high-performing teams was psychological safety - a shared belief that the team was a safe place to take risks. Members of these teams were confident they would not be embarrassed or rejected for speaking their minds. The company found that the best behavioral norms could raise the collective intelligence of an otherwise average group, while the wrong norms could hamper a group of very intelligent individuals.

Google identified two behavioral patterns in all of the best teams:

•    All of the members spoke up and contributed to every discussion and, over time, their contributions were roughly equal.
•    Members could sense how other members were feeling and were able to help each other feel respected and valued. It was also found that, on average, good teams had more women—perhaps because women are more skilled at sensing feelings.

Encouraging Innovation

Duhigg also shares the findings of two business professors, Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones, who studied creativity and published their findings in Science magazine in 2013. Uzzi and Jones studied 18 million scientific papers from 12,000 journals and concluded that almost all of the creative papers had one thing in common: previously known ideas were mixed together and applied to new questions in ways no one had done before. Uzzi stated that “a lot of people who we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen. They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries.”

Knowing when specific creative ideas will emerge is very unpredictable. According to Duhigg, however, we can create conditions in which creativity happens more often.

•    First, pay attention to how things make you think and how they make you feel. Steve Jobs once said that “the best designers are those who have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
•    Second, the anxiety caused when facing a difficult problem is often what pushes us to see old ideas in new ways. We should challenge any and all assumptions and ask “What if?” and “Why?”
•    Third, we should look at problems and potential solutions from as many different perspectives as possible. Refrain from accepting the first solution until as many other alternatives as possible have been discovered and explored.


Every CEO would like to make better decisions and avoid making bad ones. Duhigg explains how we must train ourselves to think probabilistically. To do this, we must force ourselves to envision all reasonable future scenarios and develop the ability to forecast their probability of occurrence. Most mistakes are made when our desire for certainty and speed overcomes our patience to dispassionately assess each scenario.

Duhigg also observes that, although we must use our intuition to predict most future outcomes, our memory often affects our accuracy. We tend to remember our successes more than our failures. Even if we have very little data, we can still forecast the future by making assumptions and then adjusting them based upon our observations and experience. This ability to intuit patterns is called Bayesian psychology. It turns out that humans are pretty good at making predictions—if they take the time to identify every potential outcome and to rank their probability before making final decisions.

Every successful CEO strives to be more effective, make better decisions and become more productive, which are key reasons why we bring leaders together at the Alliance of CEOs. For anyone serious about becoming smarter, faster and better, Duhigg’s book is a great read.