‘Smarter Faster Better’ and Higher Ed Productivity

Read this book if you answer “yes” to these 5 questions about doing more with less.

March 17, 2016

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Published in March of 2016.

Before I recommend Smarter Faster Better (which I highly recommend) - I’d like to ask you 5 questions:

1 - Is your department / unit / center / school etc. being asked to “do more with less”?

2 - Are there not enough people in your department to do all the work that needs to happen?

3 - Are you doing more than the work of one person?

4 - Is your unit operating at full capacity, with no redundancy or room for people to leave or to engage in new projects?

5 - Are you at risk of burning out due to the high levels of demands at work, and the lack of people and resources to meet these demands?

I bet that most of you will answer “yes” to all 5 questions.

I’d hypothesize that the mismatch between demands and people/resources is particularly acute in higher education.

The reasons for this mismatch are many and complex, ranging from technological and labor force shifts (the disappearance of administrative assistants and the rise of PCs and the internet), the erosion of public funding for postsecondary education, to the shift to a 24/7/365 campus.

Nor is higher ed alone, as the new normal across industries seems to be to do everything to avoid hiring. Employees are difficult and expensive to let go during times of contraction - better to push a smaller number of people to their breaking point than to add extra staff.

It is in this context that Smarter Faster Better is so relevant - and relevant in particular to our work in higher ed.

The task that Duhigg sets for himself is to find the common themes (grounded in good social science research) that can improve organizational and individual productivity. This ground has been covered in other places in popular academic books on behavior economics, social psychology, and organizational change. 

What makes Smarter Faster Better so great is that Duhigg is able to move seamlessly across levels of analysis - from the individual to the organization and back again.

Smarter Faster Better would be a good book to pass out to your team and then discuss at your next retreat.  If the goal of your team is to do more with less - while at the same time maintaining everyone’s sanity and well-being - then this book will prove a helpful guide and discussion starter.

Some of my main takeaways from Smarter Faster Better were about the relationship between organizational productivity and culture.  Duhigg explores research on tech companies that demonstrates that firms with commitment cultures out perform those with other norms. 

(The other identified workplaces cultures are: an engineering model, a star model, a bureaucracy model, and an autocracy model). 

In a commitment culture, employees are fully aligned with the mission and values of the organization - and they believe that the organization is invested in their success.

The research that Duhigg reviews suggests that the best way that colleges and universities can achieve higher levels of productivity is to focus on employee well-being.  Rather than take a narrow view of wellness (such as providing incentives for exercise), institutions should pay attention to attributes such as autonomy, job security, mobility, and opportunities for professional development and growth.

Another finding that caught my eye in Smarter Faster Better is the inverse relationship between the productivity of an employee and the number of projects on one’s plate.  Too many projects result in significantly less overall performance.  The reason is that doing too many things at once limits the ability to do any one thing well - and forecloses any possibility to take advantage of new opportunities as they emerge.

Again, none of the research that Duhigg cites will come as a big surprise to any committed reader of the recent crop popular academic nonfiction books. 

What Duhigg does beautifully is find new stories to illustrate his concepts (the airline stories will both scare your pants off, and make you feel better about flying), while expertly relating the larger academic lessons to our everyday workplaces challenges.

Do you have a book that you are reading, or have recently finished, that you’d like to recommend to our IHE community?

Dean Dad just recommended Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, a book that I’m excited to read but distressed that there is no audiobook version.

What are you reading?



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