Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
The author Adam Grant, a Harvard graduate, business professor and best-selling author, wants to debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade us that originals are actually far more ordinary than we might imagine.
Grant has mined a vast array of research, and uses stories from business, politics and history to argue that creative people are not necessarily cut from a different cloth. There is growing evidence that entrepreneurs don’t like risk any more than the rest of us. The billionaire entrepreneur behind the shapewear brand Spanx, Sara Blakely, balanced risk by staying in her job selling fax machines for two years before taking the leap to launch, Grammy award winning musician John Legend took two years to leave his management consulting job after releasing his album. Evidence is building that the most successful originals are not daredevils who leap before they look – they are the ones who tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, and set up a safety net.
“Unexpectedly, some of the greatest creative achievements and change initiatives in history have their roots in procrastination”Adam Grant
Conceptual innovators, like Einstein, come up with a big idea and set out to execute it. Experimental innovators, like Mark Twain, test out ideas as they go along. To sustain our originality as we age and accumulate expertise, our best bet is to adopt an experimental approach, being more like a marathon runner than a sprinter. Experimental innovators create their best work later on because they are less constrained by big ideas from the past, and will keep trying. Companies that run suggestion scheme boxes find that more ideas, and better ideas, will come from older employees.
Alfred Hitchcock created his best films from the age of 59, Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the age of 49 and Leonardo da Vinci started work on the Mona Lisa in his fifties. Martin Luther King was not a natural speaker – his most famous ‘I have a dream’ speech was in his twentieth year of speaking publicly on civil rights, and was the result of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who was in the audience asking him twice to tell them about the dream – causing him to put aside his written notes and speak from the heart.
How can leaders encourage creativity? Grant suggests a number of strategies including:
- Innovation tournament – Instead of a suggestion box, send a focussed call for ideas to solve a particular problem or meet an untapped need. Give employees three weeks to develop proposals. Winners receive a budget, team and mentoring to make their ideas a reality
- Invite all departments to pitch ideas – DreamWorks asks its accountants and lawyers to present movie ideas, encouraging them to adopt a creative mindset and increasing access to new ideas
- Instead of exit interviews hold entry interviews – Don’t wait for people to leave for their insights. Ask new hires why they joined and what will keep them there, and use their insider/outsider perspective
- Broaden experience: To really stand out in your field, a broad experience, such as working abroad or getting involved in the arts is often needed. Research has shown that although they share deep expertise with other scientists, Nobel prize winners are dramatically more likely to also be a performer like an amateur actor (22 times more likely) or write poetry or stories (12 times more likely)
- Seek problems, not solutions: The words, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’ are often quoted as a wise philosophy for leaders, but research has shown that a culture that focuses too heavily on solutions can dampen inquiry. Asking the whole company to flag problems is likely to have more value. Create an open document and on a monthly basis bring people together to review them and figure out which ones are worth solving
- Encourage devil’s advocates: Google has specifically instigated a group of ‘Canaries’ – a diverse range of trusted engineers who represent diverse viewpoints, and are not afraid to speak their minds. This allows Google to test out ideas like major changes in policy before they are implemented, and before they cause major issues Research has shown that procrastinating while thinking about a solution can result in much higher levels of creativity than getting the task done early, which parents, teachers and managers will always advocate. If you’re one of life’s procrastinators, you might just have found the reason for it.
About the author
Adam Grant is the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school’s top-rated teacher. He has been recognised as one of HR’s most influential international thinkers and BusinessWeek’s favourite professors. Grant’s first book, Give and Take, was a New York Times bestseller translated into twenty-seven languages and named one of the best books of 2013 by Amazon, Apple, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. His speaking and consulting clients include Google, Goldman Sachs, Disney Pixar and the United Nations. Adam is a contributing writer for the New York Times. He earned his Ph.D. in organisational psychology from the University of Michigan, and his B.A. from Harvard University, magna cum laude with highest honours and Phi Beta Kappa honours.
“Reading Originals made me feel like I was seated across from Adam Grant at a dinner party, as one of my favourite thinkers thrilled me with his insights and his wonderfully new take on the world.” Malcolm Gladwell, Bestselling author of Outliers and The Tipping Point
“Originals is one of the most important and captivating books I have ever read, full of surprising and powerful ideas. It will not only change the way you see the world; it might just change the way you live your life. And it could very well inspire you to change your world.” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and best-selling author of Lean In
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Author: Adam M Grant PH.D