On a cross-country flight this week, I read most of Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg, currently on the NYT’s top 10 hardcover/nonfiction list of best-selling books. It’s fair to characterize the reviews it’s gotten as “mixed,” and the more critical ones find it anecdote-heavy and light on specific guidance; according to these folks, it doesn’t deliver on its promise of revealing “the secrets of being productive in life and in business.”

I take that view as fair but, to my tastes, irrelevant. It’s not the standard I’d hold this book to, or almost any book, for that matter. Duhigg or his publisher may have felt obligated to make a claim like that one in quotes, and Duhigg is certainly a pro when it comes to knowing his way around publishing (he won a Pulitzer for his work at The New York Times and his earlier book The Power of Habit also hit the best-seller list). But it’s frankly a silly claim, not far removed from transparent (but possibly more harmful) puffery along the lines of “10 investment secrets of the pro’s.” So I picked it up with no such expectation of being magically delivered “in life and in business” from all the wasteful and feckless habits people who skip the book are presumably doomed to keep playing out.

And on those most modest terms I’m finding it opens new perspectives in my mind on timeless issues such as:

  • Where creativity comes from: stories of the legendary comic fecundity of the early days of Saturday Night Live, of turning the screenplay for the animated picture Frozen from a dud to a megahit, how West Side Story came out of left field to redefine Broadway theater.
  • Why some people excel under stress and others fail to catastrophic effect: the pilot at the controls of Qantas 32, the Airbus 380 that suffered a catastrophic, explosive engine failure climbing out of Singapore airport and returned to land safely with 21 of its 22 systems impaired or not functioning at all—”the most severely damaged airplane of its size ever to have landed safely”—vs. the pilots of Air France 447, the utterly airworthy and completely sound Airbus 330 that the cockpit crew put into what they let become an irreversible stall from straight and level flight at its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet and let dive right down into the Atlantic taking all 228 people on board with it.
  • And, for purposes of today, how organizational cultures can be toxic or enlightened: The infamous GM Fremont (California) assembly plant where workers drank heavily (and worse) on the job and even actively sabotaged cars as they moved down the line, recklessly misaligning parts, leaving bottles and bolts inside doors to rattle away, vs. that very same plant’s (and those very same workers’) transformation under the leadership of the Toyota Production System into the most productive plant in the US, with the fewest defects.

Along the way—and here’s where we circle back to Law Land—Duhigg tells of a study under the auspices of the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies which took 15 years and ultimately included over 200 companies. (I’m chagrined and exasperated that I’d never heard about this work before.) The study was born in 1994 when two Stanford Business School professors, James Baron and Michael Hannan, got tired of students asking them to prove their repeated assertion that no matter how superior a company’s product or service and no matter how loyal its customers, the enterprise would eventually fall apart if its employees didn’t trust each other.

And while Baron and Hannan believed this fervently, they had in fact little or no data to back it up. So they began studying local companies, startups very much included, in the Bay Area where they could conveniently interview the principals if possible. Eventually they built a model including five categories of management style (and yes, of course, it’s a model and not hard-core fact; they would tell you themselves that some companies have ingredients from a couple of categories and that others morph from one to an other). The five types are:

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