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Let the Body Rest, for the Sake of the Brain

I’m sure a lot of subway riders are skilled nappers, but this car seemed to be particularly talented. Going over the Brooklyn Bridge on a recent morning, just as the sun was coming up, a row of men in nearly identical black suits held on to the straps with their eyes closed. Their necks were bent at the slightest of angles, like a row of daisies in a breeze, and as the car clanged over the tracks and the sun pierced through the grimy train windows, it finally dawned on me they were all sound asleep. Not even the bumps and the light could stop them from sneaking in 15 more minutes of shut-eye before work.

We take it for granted, but most people have to wake up for work (or school or other morning obligations) long before they want to. Sleeping in is treated as a cherished luxury—it’s somehow become normal that people wake up still exhausted, and anything but is a notable exception.

But rising before the body wants to affects not only morale and energy, but brain function as well.

“The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be ...

How to Write a Business Letter: Advice From the 18th Century

The Earl of Chesterfield, the 18th-century British statesman and patron of the arts, had a number of concerns about his illegitimate son Philip, but one he revisited often in his posthumously published letters to the boy is about Philip’s correspondence. This species of worry ranged from handwriting (“shamefully bad and illiberal; it is neither the hand of a man of business, nor of a gentleman, but of a truant school boy”) to the boy’s prose style (“one principal topic of our conversation will be, not only the purity but the elegance of the English language; in both which you are very deficient”).

The latter became a particular concern after Chesterfield went to the trouble of setting the boy up in the world. In December 1751, he offered Philip some delightfully modern-sounding advice on his business correspondence:

The first thing necessary in writing letters of business, is extreme clearness and perspicuity; every paragraph should be so clear and unambiguous, that the dullest fellow in the world may not be able to mistake it, nor obliged to read it twice in order to understand it. This necessary clearness implies a correctness, without excluding an elegance of style. Tropes, figures, antitheses ...

The Introverted Face

People whose faces are perceived to look more "competent" are more likely to be CEOs of large, successful companies. Having a face that people deem "dominant" is a predictor of rank advancement in the military. People are more likely to invest money with people who look "trustworthy." These sorts of findings go on and on in recent studies that claim people can accurately guess a variety of personality traits and behavioral tendencies from portraits alone. The findings seem to elucidate either canny human intuition or absurd, misguided bias.

There has been a recent boom in research on how people attribute social characteristics to others based on the appearance of faces—independent of cues about age, gender, race, or ethnicity. (At least, as independent as possible.) The results seem to offer some intriguing insight, claiming that people are generally pretty good at predicting who is, for example, trustworthy, competent, introverted or extroverted, based entirely on facial structure. There is strong agreement across studies as to what facial attributes mean what to people, as illustrated in renderings throughout this article. But it's, predictably, not at all so simple.

Christopher Olivola, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, makes the case against ...

Is the Recovery Act a Model for the Ebola Response?

Does it take a crisis for government to work right? Earlier this week, I attended a forum sponsored by the American Society for Public Administration that looked at the successes in implementing the Recovery Act and potential lessons for public administration in the future.

Little did I realize that the future would come so quickly, with President Obama’s announcement that he was appointing Ron Klain as the Ebola Czar. Klain, who was chief of staff for vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, was a key player in the implementation of the Recovery Act.

The forum, The Recovery Act, Five Years Later, was kicked off by Klain’s former point person, Ed DeSeve, who in 2009 and 2010 led the day-to-day efforts to coordinate the oversight of $787 billion in spending across 22 major federal agencies via more than 200 programs.

President Obama had asked Vice President Biden to serve as the focal point for implementing the Recovery Act, and Klain, as his chief of staff, recruited DeSeve.

DeSeve said their strategic model was to serve as a network coordinator, not a CEO, of the implementation effort, operating with a staff of eight or less. The team focused on ...

Build a Better Brainstorm

In recent years, typical business brainstorming has gotten a bad rap for a lot of reasons: It is ineffective. It is dominated by loudmouths. Most people think better alone. So why is brainstorming still widely utilized by businesses intent on idea generation? The answer has more to do with the inherent biases and shortcomings we do not see in brainstorming than what is observable in the process.

“Most people go through brainstorming sessions in which only half of the ideas that exist in the room get expressed,” says Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “Very often the best ones don’t get expressed, and participants walk out feeling like it was a productive meeting.”

With that in mind, Nordgren recently designed the mobile app Candor as a handy way to generate, capture, organize, and evaluate ideas while bypassing some of the main obstacles posed by traditional brainstorming. With Candor, ideas are generated in advance and then discussed and evaluated in person—which increases the number and diversity of ideas that are brought to the table.

This process often feels counterintuitive or unnatural for people raised on group idea generation, but Nordgren is trying ...