Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World - Adam Grant
August 31, 2017
The #1 New York Times bestseller that examines how people can champion new ideas—and how leaders can fight groupthink.
Originals addresses the challenge of improving the world from the perspective of becoming original: choosing to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions. How can we originate new ideas, policies, and practices without risking it all?
I also suggest watching Adam Grant’s TED talk on the same topic here. Additionally the full book is a great read, and has a lot of examples that tangibly bring these concepts to life.
Creative Destruction: The Risky Business of Going Against The Grain
Great creators don’t necessarily have the deepest expertise but rather seek out the broadest perspectives. Many times innovation involves borrowing or repurposing something from on industry into another.
The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place.
When achievement motivation goes sky-high, it can crowd out originality: The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success. As psychologists Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg put it, “Once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.”
Originality is an act of creative destruction. Advocating for new systems often requires demolishing the old way of doing things, and we hold back for fear of rocking the boat.
We find surface ways of appearing original—donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes—without taking the risk of actually being original.
Like all great creators, innovators, and change agents, those that succeed transformed the world because they were willing to take a leap of faith. After all, if you don’t swing for the fences, it’s impossible to hit a homerun.
Entrepreneurs: They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.
To become original, we have to be willing to take some risks. When we go against the grain to upend time-honored traditions, we can never be certain that we’ll succeed.
Although many originals come across as beacons of conviction and confidence on the outside, their inner experiences are peppered with ambivalence and self-doubt.
Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors: The Art and Science of Recognizing Originals Ideas
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Scott Adams
Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They’re constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.
If originals aren’t reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas. Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.”
In every field, even the most eminent creators typically produce a large quantity of work that’s technically sound but considered unremarkable by experts and audiences.
If you want to be original, “the most important possible thing you could do,” says Ira Glass, the producer of This American Life and the podcast Serial, “is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.”
It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.
If we want to increase our odds of betting on the best original ideas, we have to generate our own ideas immediately before we screen others’ suggestions.
Note: For example, solo brainstorming before sharing ideas with a group. Would be interesting to do this internally on a team, before any agency presents ideas. Or if presenting as an agency, start the client meeting with them brainstorming ideas
The more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world. It is when people have moderate expertise in a particular domain that they’re the most open to radically creative ideas. The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment. They become overconfident, and they’re less likely to seek critical feedback even though the context is radically different.
Experience helps physicists, accountants, insurance analysts, and chess masters—they all work in fields where cause-and-effect relationships are fairly consistent. But admissions officers, court judges, intelligence analysts, psychiatrists, and stockbrokers didn’t benefit much from experience. In a rapidly changing world, the lessons of experience can easily point us in the wrong direction. And because the pace of change is accelerating, our environments are becoming ever more unpredictable. This makes intuition less reliable as a source of insight about new ideas and places a growing premium on analysis.
The enthusiasm we inject into our words, tone of voice, and body language isn’t a clue to the internal passion we experience, but merely a reflection of our presentation skills and our personalities.If we want to forecast whether the originators of a novel idea will make it successful, we need to look beyond the enthusiasm they express about their ideas and focus on the enthusiasm for execution that they reveal through their actions.
Out on a Limb: Speaking Truth to Power
The power of the upside-down pitch:
In a pitch, leading with weaknesses disarms the audience. Marketing professors Marian Friestad and Peter Wright find that when we’re aware that someone is trying to persuade us, we naturally raise our mental shields. However, when people presented drawbacks or disadvantages,our tendency is to become an ally. Instead of selling, they’ve given a problem to solve (collaboratively).
When Griscom told investors about the problems with Babble, he demonstrated that he wasn’t snowed by his own ideas or trying to snow them; he was a shrewd judge of his shortcomings. He was smart enough to do his homework and anticipate some of the problems that they would spot. When Griscom described the hurdles he faced in his own business, he came across not only as knowledgeable, but also as honest and modest.
Explain your idea like you’re explaining it to a 5th grader:
You’ve spent hours, days, weeks, months, or maybe even years thinking about the idea. You’ve contemplated the problem, formulated the solution, and rehearsed the vision. You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time. This explains why we often under-communicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.Don’t use jargon. Use clear, and simple language to explain even the most complex ideas.
Fools Rush In: Timing, Strategic Procrastination and First Mover Disadvantage
When you put off a task, you buy yourself time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea. As a result, you consider a wider range of original concepts and ultimately choose a more novel direction.
When they were passionate about coming up with new ideas, putting off the task led them to more creative solutions. Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.
da Vinci realized that originality could not be rushed. He noted that people of “genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least, for they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect idea.”
Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.
Great originals are great procrastinators, but they don’t skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.
Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.Success is not usually attained by being ahead of everyone else but by waiting patiently for the right time to act.
One study of over three thousand startups indicates that roughly three out of every four fail because of premature scaling—making investments that the market isn’t yet ready to support.
The more experiments you run, the less constrained you become by your ideas from the past.
Rethinking Groupthink: The Myths of Strong Cultures, Cults, and Devil’s Advocates
“In fact, the only sin which we never forgive in each other is difference of opinion.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Classic case of groupthink—the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent. Groupthink is the enemy of originality; people feel pressured to conform to the dominant, default views instead of championing diversity of thought.
Dissenting opinions are useful even when they’re wrong.
“Don’t let ‘loyalty’ stand in the way of truth and openness,” Dalio writes in the principles. “No one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.”
For devil’s advocates to be maximally effective, they need to really believe in the position they’re representing—and the group needs to believe that they believe it, too.
“The greatest tragedy of mankind,” Dalio says, “comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true.” Through the process of open-minded debate, Dalio expects employees to reconcile their differences. Instead of reaching consensus because some people are overconfident or others are afraid to speak up, the staff get on the same page by duking it out. In the language of futurist Paul Saffo, the norm is to have “strong opinions, weakly held.”
When every member of a group has different information, inquiry needs to precede advocacy—which means you have to raise the problems before pursuing solutions.
Ray Dalio doesn’t want employees to bring him solutions; he expects them to bring him problems. One of his first inventions was the issue log, an open-access database for employees to flag any problem they identify and to rate its severity. Getting problems noted is half the battle against groupthink; the other is listening to the right opinions about how to solve them. The Bridgewater procedure for the latter is to gather a group of credible people to diagnose the problems, share their reasoning, and explore the causes and possible solutions.
“Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.”
He favored the debate format between believable people, because it was the fastest way to reach the right answer and it enabled them to learn from each other’s reasoning.
“Executives underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones,” Kotter writes. “Without a sense of urgency, people . . . won’t make needed sacrifices. Instead they cling to the status quo and resist.”
At the pharmaceutical giant Merck, CEO Kenneth Frazier decided to motivate his executives to take a more active role in leading innovation and change. He asked them to do something radical: generate ideas that would put Merck out of business. For the next two hours, the executives worked in groups, pretending to be one of Merck’s top competitors. Energy soared as they developed ideas for drugs that would crush theirs and key markets they had missed. Then, their challenge was to reverse their roles and figure out how to defend against these threats. This “kill the company” exercise is powerful because it reframes a gain-framed activity in terms of losses. When deliberating about innovation opportunities, the leaders weren’t inclined to take risks. When they considered how their competitors could put them out of business, they realized that it was a risk not to innovate. The urgency of innovation was apparent.
If you want people to take risks, you need first to show what’s wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss.
“Instead of courage,” management guru Tom Peters recommends fostering “a level of fury with the status quo such that one cannot not act.”
Individual Actions for Impact
Generating and Recognizing Original Ideas
1. Question the default. Instead of taking the status quo for granted, ask why it exists in the first place. When you remember that rules and systems were created by people, it becomes clear that they’re not set in stone—and you begin to consider how they can be improved.
2. Triple the number of ideas you generate. Just as great baseball players only average a hit for every three at bats, every innovator swings and misses. The best way to boost your originality is to produce more ideas.
3. Immerse yourself in a new domain. Originality increases when you broaden your frame of reference. One approach is to learn a new craft, like the Nobel Prize–winning scientists who expanded their creative repertoires by taking up painting, piano, dance, or poetry. Another strategy is to try a job rotation: get trained to do a position that requires a new base of knowledge and skills. A third option is to learn about a different culture, like the fashion designers who became more innovative when they lived in foreign countries that were very different from their own.
4. Procrastinate strategically. When you’re generating new ideas, deliberately stop when your progress is incomplete. By taking a break in the middle of your brainstorming or writing process, you’re more likely to engage in divergent thinking and give ideas time to incubate.
5. Seek more feedback from peers. It’s hard to judge your own ideas, because you tend to be too enthusiastic. To get the most accurate reviews, run your pitches by peers—they’re poised to spot the potential and the possibilities.
Voicing and Championing Original Ideas
6. Balance your risk portfolio. When you’re going to take a risk in one domain, offset it by being unusually cautious in another realm of your life. Like the entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs while testing their ideas.
7. Highlight the reasons not to support your idea. Remember Rufus Griscom, the entrepreneur in chapter 3 who told investors why they shouldn’t invest in his company? You can do this, too. Start by describing the three biggest weaknesses of your idea and then ask them to list several more reasons not to support it. Assuming that the idea has some merit, when people have to work hard to generate their own objections, they will be more aware of its virtues.
8. Make your ideas more familiar. Repeat yourself—it makes people more comfortable with an unconventional idea. Reactions typically become more positive after ten to twenty exposures to an idea, particularly if they’re short, spaced apart by a few days, and mixed in with other ideas. You can also make your original concept more appealing by connecting it with other ideas that are already understood by the audience.
9. Speak to a different audience. Instead of seeking out friendly people who share your values, try approaching disagreeable people who share your methods. Your best allies are the people who have a track record of being tough and solving problems with approaches similar to yours.
10. Be a tempered radical: if your idea is extreme, couch it in a more conventional goal. That way, instead of changing people’s minds, you can appeal to values or beliefs they hold. You can use a trojan horse for your radical idea. You can also position your proposal as a means to an end that matters to others.
11. Motivate yourself differently when you’re committed vs. uncertain. When you’re determined to act, focus on the progress left to go—you’ll be energized to close the gap. When your conviction falters, think of the progress you’ve already made. Having come this far, how could you give up now?
12. Don’t try to calm down. If you’re nervous, it’s hard to relax. It’s easier to turn anxiety into intense positive emotions like interest and enthusiasm. Think about the reasons you’re eager to challenge the status quo, and the positive outcomes that might result.
13. Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. In the face of injustice, thinking about the perpetrator fuels anger and aggression. Shifting your attention to the victim makes you more empathetic, increasing the chances that you’ll channel your anger in a constructive direction. Instead of trying to punish the people who caused harm, you’ll be more likely to help the people who were harmed.
14. Realize you’re not alone. Even having a single ally is enough to dramatically increase your will to act. Find one person who believes in your vision and begin tackling the problem together.
15. Remember that if you don’t take initiative, the status quo will persist. Consider the four responses to dissatisfaction: exit, voice, persistence, and neglect. Only exit and voice improve your circumstances. Speaking up may be the best route if you have some control over the situation; if not, it may be time to explore options for expanding your influence or leaving.
Sparking Original Ideas
1. Run an innovation tournament. Welcoming suggestions on any topic at any time doesn’t capture the attention of busy people. Innovation tournaments are highly efficient for collecting a large number of novel ideas and identifying the best ones. Instead of a suggestion box, send a focused call for ideas to solve a particular problem or meet an untapped need. Give employees three weeks to develop proposals, and then have them evaluate one another’s ideas, advancing the most original submissions to the next round. The winners receive budget, a team, and the relevant mentoring and sponsorship to make their ideas a reality.
2. Picture yourself as the enemy. People often fail to generate new ideas due to a lack of urgency. You can create urgency by implementing the “kill the company” exercise. Gather a group together and invite them to spend an hour brainstorming about how to put the organization out of business - or decimate its most popular product, service, or technology. Then, hold a discussion about the most serious threats and how to convert them into opportunities to transition from defense to offense.
3. Invite employees from different functions and levels to pitch ideas. At DreamWorks Animation, even accountants and lawyers are encouraged and trained to present movie ideas (centered around their brand identity / core DNA of movie making). This kind of creative engagement can add skill variety to work, making it more interesting for employees while increasing the organization’s access to new ideas.
4. Hold an opposite day. This is a great empathy practice. Divide into groups, and each chooses an assumption, belief, or area of knowledge that is widely taken for granted. Each group asks, “when is the opposite true?” and then delivers a presentation on their idea.
Building Cultures of Originality
6. Hire not on cultural fit, but on cultural contribution. When leaders prize cultural fit, they end up hiring people who think in similar ways. Originality comes not from people who match the culture, but from those who enrich it. Before interviews identify the diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and personality traits that are currently missing from your culture. Then place a premium on those attributes in the hiring process
7. Shift from exit interviews to entry interviews. Instead of waiting to ask for ideas until employees are on their way out the door, start seeking their insights when they first arrive. By sitting down with new hires during onboarding, you can help them feel valued and gather novel suggestions along the way. Ask what brought them in the door and what would keep them at the firm, and challenge them to think like culture detectives. They can use their insider-outsider perspectives to investigate which practices belong in a museum and which should be kept, as well as potential inconsistencies between espoused and enacted values.
8. Ask for problems, not solutions. If people rush to answers, you end up with more advocacy than inquiry, and miss you on the breadth of knowledge in the room. Following Bridgewater’s issue log, you can create an open document for teams to flag problems that they see. On a monthly basis, bring people together to review them and figure out which ones are worth solving.
9. Stop assigning devil’s advocates and start unearthing them. Dissenting opinions are useful even when they’re wrong, but they only effective if they are authentic and consistent. Instead of assigning people to play the devil’s advocate, find people who genuinely hold minority opinions, and invite them to present their views. To identify these people, try appointing an information manager - make someone responsible for seeking out team members individually before meetings to find out what they know.
10. Welcome criticism. It’s hard to encourage dissent if you don’t practice what you preach. When Ray Dalio received an email criticizing his performance in an important meeting, copying it to the entire company sent a clear message, that he welcomed negative feedback. By inviting employees to criticize you publicly, you can set the tone for people to communicate more openly even when their ideas are unpopular.