12.29.2016

Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LIX

Here's two excerpts from a book I am reading, "Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Business and Life," by Charles Duhigg:

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Onstage, Bock brought up a series of slides. “What matters are five key norms,” he told the audience. 

Teams need to believe that their work is important. 

Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful. 

Teams need clear goals and defined roles. 

Team members need to know they can depend on one another. 

But, most important, teams need psychological safety. 

To create psychological safety, Bock said, team leaders needed to model the right behaviors. There were Google-designed checklists they could use: Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversations, because that will establish an interrupting norm. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it. They should admit what they don’t know. They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once. They should encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations, and encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways. They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion. 

There were dozens of tactics on the checklist. All of them, however, came back 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. 

“There are lots of small things a leader can do,” Abeer Dubey told me. “In meetings, does the leader cut people off by saying ‘Let me ask a question there,’ or does she wait until someone is done speaking? How does the leader act when someone’s upset? These things are so subtle, but they can have a huge impact. Every team is different, and it’s not uncommon in a company like Google for engineers or salespeople to be taught to fight for what they believe in. But you need the right norms to make arguments productive rather than destructive. Otherwise, a team never becomes stronger.” 

For three months, Project Aristotle traveled from division to division explaining their findings and coaching team leaders. Google’s top executives released tools that any team could use to evaluate if members felt psychologically safe and worksheets to help leaders and teammates improve their scores. 

“I come from a quantitative background. If I’m going to believe something, you need to give me data to back it up,” said Sagnik Nandy, who as chief of Google Analytics Engineering heads one of the company’s biggest teams. “So seeing this data has been a game changer for me. Engineers love debugging software because we know we can get 10 percent more efficiency by just making a few tweaks. But we never focus on debugging human interactions. We put great people together and hope it will work, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, and most of the time we don’t know why. Aristotle let us debug our people. It’s totally changed how I run meetings. I’m so much more conscious of how I model listening now, or whether I interrupt, or how I encourage everyone to speak.”

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Uzzi and Jones—along with their colleagues Satyam Mukherjee and Mike Stringer—wrote an algorithm to evaluate the 17.9 million papers. By examining how many different ideas each study contained, whether those ideas had been mentioned together previously, and if the papers were popular or ignored, their program could rate each paper’s novelty. Then they could look to see if the most creative papers shared any traits.

The analysis told them that some creative papers were short; others were long. Some were written by individuals; the majority were composed by teams. Some studies were authored by researchers at the beginning of their careers; others came from more senior faculty. 

In other words, there were lots of different ways to write a creative study. 

But almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, 90 percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important. 

If you consider some of the biggest intellectual innovations of the past half century, you can see this dynamic at work. The field of behavioral economics, which has remade how companies and governments operate, emerged in the mid-1970s and ’80s when economists began applying long-held principles from psychology to economics, and asking questions like why perfectly sensible people bought lottery tickets. Or, to cite other juxtapositions of familiar ideas in novel ways, today’s Internet social networking companies grew when software programmers borrowed public health models that were originally developed to explain how viruses spread and applying them to how friends share updates. Physicians can now map complicated genetic sequences rapidly because researchers have transported the math of Bayes’ rule into laboratories examining how genes evolve. 

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 importing ideas from one area of science into another. Edison and his colleagues “used their knowledge of electromagnetic power from the telegraph industry, where they first worked, to transfer old ideas [to the industries of] lighting, telephone, phonograph, railway and mining,” two Stanford professors wrote in 1997. Researchers have consistently found that labs and companies encourage such combinations to spark creativity. A 1997 study of the 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. 

The power of combining old ideas in new ways also extends to finance, where the prices of stock derivatives are calculated by mixing formulas originally developed to describe the motion of dust particles with gambling techniques. Modern bike helmets exist because a designer wondered if he could take a boat’s hull, which can withstand nearly any collision, and design it in the shape of a hat. It even reaches to parenting, where one of the most popular baby books—Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946—combined Freudian psychotherapy with traditional child-rearing techniques. 

“A lot of the people we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen,” said Uzzi. “They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries or groups. They’ve seen a lot of different people attack the same problems in different settings, and so they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work.”
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