Originals or How Non-Conformists Move the World
THERE ARE SO FEW originals in life.
“We find surface ways of appearing original—donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes—without taking the risk of actually being original. When it comes to the powerful ideas in our heads and the core values in our hearts, we censor ourselves.”
Originals by Adam Grant—a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school—is about the people who choose to champion originality and move us forward. They are not that different from the rest of us, but in spite of inner doubts and a world geared toward uniformity, they press on and change the world.
For most of us we are not like the conceptual innovators that formulate a big idea early on in life and act on it. We are probably more like the experimental innovators that move through idea after idea, learning and evolving as they go. “While experimental innovation can require years or decades to accumulate the requisite knowledge and skill.” writes Grant, “it becomes a more sustainable source of originality.”
Interestingly, it is not the child prodigies that go on to change the world. While they are rich in talent an ambition, they don’t learn to be original. “Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.” Most prodigies never make the leap to originality. “They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves.”
How Do We Get More Original Ideas?
If you want to do original work, do more work. “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.”
Quantity is the most predictable path to quality. Our most brilliant work will be found in the mass of our less brilliant work. It is important to mention also that originals expose themselves to influences far outside their official arena of expertise. Nobel Prize winners are “dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists.” Notice more and look for connections.
How Do We Bridge the Gap between Insight and Action?
The best judges of creative ideas are fellow creators. Fellow creators are more open to original ideas. “The more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world.”
Critical reviews are often viewed as better—more intelligent. “Prophets of doom and gloom appear wise and insightful.” Too much optimism comes across as salesmanship. No one wants to be sold. When you are trying to sell an original idea people are looking to reasons why it won’t work. Next time try presenting a candid discussion of your ideas weaknesses. In trying to sell investors on his company Babble, Rufus Griscom described the hurdles he faced in his own business. He came across not only as knowledgeable, but also honest and modest. “When I led with the factors that could kill the company, the response from the board was the exact opposite: oh, these things aren’t so bad.”
We often undercommunicate our ideas because we are so familiar with them that we think there is no need to repeat them. Our audience needs more exposure to accept them.
Developing Original Ideas
Procrastination can improve our creativity. In one example Grant notes, “It was only when they began thinking about the task and then deliberately procrastinated that they considered more remote possibilities and generated more creative ideas. Delaying progress enable them to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish it, rather than ‘seizing and freezing’ on one particular strategy.”
Being original doesn’t mean being first. “It just means being different and better.” When originals try to be first they tend to overstep. They move before the market can support their idea. They tend to take bigger risks and are prone to make impulsive decisions. “When you are the first to market, you have to make all of the mistakes yourself.” Those that follow can more easily learn from you mistakes and improve on your idea.
When presenting original ideas they can’t be seen as too radical or people will never accept them. When selling them you have to give people something to connect with. “Instead of assuming that others share our principles, or trying to convince them to adopt ours, we ought to present our values as a means of pursuing theirs. It’s hard to change other people’s ideals. It’s much easier to link our agendas to familiar values that people already hold.”
How to Build a Culture of Originality
Too many rules and they way we understand them can greatly affect our creativity. “In one study, parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for home work and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of less than one rule and tended to ‘place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules.’” Grant also adds:
If parents do believe in enforcing a lot of regulations, the way they explain them matters a great deal. New research shows that teenagers defy rules when they’re enforced in a controlling manner, by yelling or threatening punishment. When mothers enforce many rules but offer a clear rationale for why they’re important, teenagers are substantially less likely to break them, because they internalize them.In this regard, nouns are better than verbs. It’s better to ask children to be helpers than ask them to help. It speaks to their identity. In the same way being told not to cheat is not as effective than saying “Please don’t be a cheater.”
Dealing with Groupthink
Cohesion in a group doesn’t cause groupthink. “There’s a fine line between having a strong culture and operating like a cult.” When organizational performance is down, leaders tend to search for people who share their perspective. When what they need to do is look for advice that challenges them. “If you’re going to build a strong culture, it’s paramount to make diversity one of your core values.” It’s what separates a strong culture from a cult.
You need a loyal opposition. You need a devil’s advocate. But here’s the thing, you need to find one, not assign one. “When people are designated to dissent, they are just playing a role. This causes two problems: They don’t argue forcefully or consistently enough for the minority viewpoint, and group members are less likely to take them seriously. But when it is authentic, it stimulates thought; it clarifies and it emboldens.”
To keep this process constructive, organizations must prioritize their values. This provides a framework for new ideas. “The more principles you have, the greater the odds that employees focus on different values or interpret the same values differently.”
In Originals, Grant utilizes new examples and counterintuitive research to inspire us to lead—to change the world. He concludes with 30 Actions for Impact for unleashing originality. A 15 question Originality Assessment can be found at adamgrant.net.
Of Related Interest:
Are You a Giver or a Taker?
Hacking the Creative Process
Be a Coach, Not a Critic
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