Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
February 11, 2016
Adam Grant gives us a new way to talk about change, and the personal and organizational knowledge to bring it about.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, Viking, 336 pages, $27.00, Hardcover, January 2016, ISBN 9780525429562
Most everyone agrees on one thing in the world today: the need for and inevitability of change. Our would-be leaders are quick to try to claim the mantle of change, and the population seems to yearn for it (see the results of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary). So, how do we have a useful and constructive conversation about change—in our companies, our culture, our country, and the world—and then how do we promote and enact it? Innovate and disrupt, right? That's the accepted wisdom and terminology of the day.
But the concepts of disruption and innovation are just that these days: conceptual. Everyone seems to have a different definition and formula for them, or a complete lack of definition and formula altogether, rendering the words mere catchphrases. A select few authors are able to cut through that noise and write something truly useful using the terminology, but, increasingly, I find these words to be a barrier rather than a entryway to useful conversation on change.
In his new book, Originals, Adam Grant changes (and enriches) the conversation by changing the language. In his look at how non-conformists come up with new ideas and insights into how the world works, and how they move the world forward and make it work better using those unique insights, he gives us a gift in simplicity. He gives us originality.
One of the first things he does in this new book is take on the myth that entrepreneurs and other change agents are inherently more immune to the fear and anxiety that accompanies enacting change.
Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward. After spending years studying them and interacting with them, I am struck that their inner experiences are not any different from our own. 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.
Throughout Originals, Adam Grant explains how most successful entrepreneurs aren’t the daredevil risk takers we make them out to be, that, in fact, the research shows they are more risk-averse than the general population, and it is that which makes them successful. They don’t go for broke, because they know in most instances they will end up broke. They produce a lot of ideas, explore multiple ways to bring them into the world, keep their day jobs while doing so, and have contingency plans.
The entrepreneur as romantic hero is an extremely important myth to dispel, because doing so brings the idea of originality down from its perch in the popular imagination and makes it more accessible to all of us. As a result, Grant teaches us all how to be more original—or rather, makes us remember that this originality is already there and teaches us to bring it out in our organizations and ourselves.
Put another way, Grant reminds us that originality is a choice:
Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice. Lincoln wasn’t born with an original personality. Taking on controversy wasn’t programmed into his DNA; it was an act of conscious will. As the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”
Of course, he didn’t become Abraham Lincoln in a vacuum. He was committed to moral principles and values, advanced a vision and a message of union and freedom, and formed alliances in the real world to protect and promote those values, ideas, and make them (more of) a reality in the world.
Most of us aren’t going to make changes that alter history so greatly, but each of us can make a personal choice to consider the everyday problems, injustices, and inequalities we encounter and ways we can address them. Grant champions a mindset of “vuja de,” in which “we face something familiar, but see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.” To produce ideas, try to look at familiar things in unfamiliar ways, with a “beginner’s mind.” Question rules, cultural norms, and why a familiar, known problem persists.
Grant does a great job of explaining the best way for originals to advance their ideas and causes. He tells us those that are successful in advancing original ideas are generally those that are prolific in coming up with a lot of ideas. He’ll explain why sometimes those with only slight differences in opinion end up being greater enemies than those we completely disagree with, and how originals can temper the shock of a radical idea by “smuggling their real vision inside a Trojan horse,” or making a more moderate ask to gain allies and form a coalition.
It is individuals who must champion new ideas and originality in organizations, and it is the job of leaders to create cultures that allow those original ideas to flourish, to instill originality in its culture. There are many ways to do that, but the one I was drawn to the most was perhaps the most counterintuitive: Don’t hire for cultural fit. Rather, hire for cultural contribution, which often means promoting dissent to avoid groupthink.
In a poll of executives and students, he found Bridgewater Associates to have the “strongest culture they have ever encountered in an organization,” because they have instilled that kind of dissent in its culture. Grant tells us that:
Bridgewater’s secret is promoting the expression of original ideas.
Bridgewater, a financial services firm, wants “people who will think differently and enrich the culture.” In fact, employees are evaluated on whether they are willing to speak up. Rather than the risk of being fired for voicing strong opinions, employees “can be fired for failing to challenge the status quo.” Rather than suppressing criticism from employees about the way his company does business, Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio wrote in the company’s principles (of which there are over two hundred) that “No one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.” By promoting unpopular ideas, they spotted and warned their clients about the impending financial crisis in 2007, and "According to Barron's, 'Nobody was better prepared for the global market crash.'" That empowerment of employee ideas and insights also increases what they're able to contribute to the company culture:
Strong cultures exist when employees are intensely committed to a shared set of values and norms, but the effects depend on what those values and norms are. If you’re going to build a strong culture, it’s paramount to make diversity one of your core values. This is what separates Bridgewater’s strong culture from a cult: the commitment is to promoting dissent. In hiring, instead of using similarity to gauge cultural fit, Bridgewater assesses cultural contribution.
He explains how to use dissent to strengthen organizational decision-making, and how to champion nonconformity without leading to anarchy. There is also great guidance in the book for parents, teachers, and mentors to foster originality in those they teach. Throughout Originals, more then just championing originality and new ideas, Adam Grant describes how we as individuals and organizations can close the gap between generating those ideas and acting upon them.
But it all comes back to a personal choice and, I believe, a change in language. I’m so happy to have the simple, yet powerful idea of originality enter our business lexicon. Rather than having to come up with an “innovative” idea or a “disruptive” product, we can simply strive to have an original one. And we all have something distinct and authentic to ourselves to contribute to the world should we to decide to speak up and offer it, because we are all unique and uncommon. We’re all originals.