May 22, 2013 4:18 pm

Down-to-earth advice for getting out of a rut

The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success

Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson

Dutton Books, $27.95

You could call it being stuck in a rut. Or, as the authors of this new book put it, you could say that effort follows the law of diminishing returns, eventually causing both people and companies to reach a point of stagnation where marginal returns disappear.

In The Plateau Effect , Bob Sullivan, an NBC News columnist, and Hugh Thompson, a maths professor and IT security expert, argue they have found a cure for this condition. They call it “constant recalibration”, or always rethinking your approach to problems.

“Plateaus are a sign – a tangible warning – that your life, your relationships, or your business is clogged,” they write. “[A] plateau means you have stopped growing. It means your mind and senses are dulled by sameness.”

To explain the idea, the book transports readers to the Stinking Rose, a garlic haven restaurant in San Francisco with a menu that ranges from garlic spaghetti to garlic ice cream, and an aroma that crowds out your sensory faculties. Once seated, however, something incredible occurs. You suddenly stop noticing the garlic and your normal sense of smell returns. While the body’s ability to adapt is a critical element of evolutionary design, this kind of “acclimation” is also the origin of complacency – the bête-noire of so many motivational books.

The authors write in clear, engaging and sometimes irreverent prose as they dart across case studies from Amazon to Zappos.

Part personal development manual, part business book, The Plateau Effect identifies and offers remedies for eight types of plateaus: immunity (closely linked to acclimation); the “greedy algorithm” (picking the best short-term solution while ignoring the long-term outcome); bad timing (executing things at the wrong intervals); flow issues (problems encountered just when things seem to be sailing along); distorted data (measuring the wrong things or incorrectly assessing risk); distraction (falling victim to the illusion of multitasking); failing slowly (forging ahead even in the throes of a plateau); and perfectionism (procrastinating because it is never the right time to start).

Many of the solutions offered to these problems seem like sound enough advice but are also decidedly down to earth: do less, not more; take a break; listen and set deadlines to counteract procrastination.

The writers are perhaps at their best when examining success through the lens of case studies.

There is the Denver pizza chain that gave over its premises to a start-up coffee and biscuit shop in the mornings. This halved its rent and gave it access to crossover customers in a way that would not have been possible if it had simply relied on incremental investments to yield incremental gains.

The authors also show how remedies such as “accelerating failure” can work by citing the example of Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm Computing and Handspring.

Zoomer, its first product, was an “epic fail”. Using customer feedback from that failed device, he crafted a prototype out of wood and a chopstick, and carried it around with him for months, constantly testing the design. He was thus able to identify faults and correct them – and from his experiment, the PalmPilot was born.

One could quibble with some of the examples. For instance, tenacity is the more obvious lesson to draw from Mr Hawkins’ experience. Meanwhile, the darting from psychology and mathematics to science and sports to explain the plateaus we encounter in both business and life is, at points, dizzying.

Nonetheless, The Plateau Effect is, on balance, a stimulating read, offering some inventive theories and solutions.

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