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Smartcuts: A book review by Bob Morris

Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking
Shane Snow
HarperBusiness (September 2014)

“Sacred cows make the best burgers.”  Robert Kriegel

As I began to read Smartcuts, I was again reminded of the fact that many (if not most) human limits are self-imposed. For reasons that are assumed but seldom explained, we accept as received wisdom that what “they” say  has always been true. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been told “We’ve always done it that way” or “We tried it once and it didn’t work.” In one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most popular tales, “The Ugly Duckling,” a bird born in a barnyard is abused because he is an ugly duck. Over time, he matures into a handsome swan. Sacred cows and false assumptions usually go unchallenged.

According to Shane Snow, there are significant differences between “rapid, potentially short-term gains, or shortcuts, and success achieved through smarter work, or smartcuts.” That is, “an act of lateral thinking with integrity. Working harder [but also smarter] and achieving breakthroughs without creating negative externalities.”

Edward de Bono is generally credited with popularizing lateral thinking in 1967 with the publication of his eponymous book. In Smartcuts, Snow has “catalogued the patterns through which rapid successes and breakthroughs innovators have achieved the incredible through lateral thinking. The nine principles comprise a framework for breaking conventions that explains how many of the world’s most successful people and businesses do so much with less.”

Here are the principles, each thoroughly explained in the book:

1. Hacking the Ladder
2. Training with Masters
3. Rapid Feedback
4. Platforms
5. Catching Waves
6. Superconnecting
7. Momentum
8. Simplicity
9. 10X Thinking

Smartcut thinking offers dozens of practical benefits:

o Reduction (if not elimination) of waste
o Improvement of first-pass yield
o Reduction of cycle time
o Simplification of process
o Increase of agility and resilience
o Faster modification
o Strengthened verification

I agree with Shane Snow: “We can do incredible things by rejecting convention and working smarter. What would happen if we looked at problems like pollution and climate change, racism and classism, violence and hunger, and instead of waiting for luck to strike, asked ourselves, ‘How can we use smartcuts to fix things faster?’ You can make incremental progress by playing by the rules. [That is, complying with someone else’s rules.] To create breakthrough change, you have to break the rules. Let’s break some rules together.”

In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that the strongest resistance to change is cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Never underestimate the difficulty of achieving breakthrough results with lateral thinking. That said, keep in mind this reassurance from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Snow’s more recent book, Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart (June 2018), as well as Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries (March 2019).

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