Adam Grant: True Originality Pays Off in the End

It’s rare for brilliant ideas to originate in the boardroom. Why is that? In his latest book, Originals - How Non-Conformists Move the World, organisational psychologist and best-selling author Adam Grant explains how novel ideas are born and how they define our culture and economy. According to Grant, originality can be nurtured. A dialogue on ideas and how to turn them into successful innovations.

Lars Gaede
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Adam Grant, you’ve written a best-selling book on how to generate good ideas. Which is, of course, a good idea in its own right. Can you let us into the secret of how you came up with this idea?
Well, to be quite honest, it all started with a really bad idea on my part. One of my students asked me if I’d be interested in investing in a start-up that he was planning to set up with a few of his fellow students. I took a long and detailed look at the proposal and said thanks, but no thanks – in the firm belief that the whole thing would be a flop. It was by far the worst business decision I’ve ever made, a complete nightmare! Since then I’ve left it to my wife to handle our finances.

What was the start-up all about?
They wanted to sell glasses online. I thought it was bound to fail. If you’re trying to sell glasses, you have to test your customers’ eyes – how’s that supposed to work online? And then the lenses have to be adjusted individually, and that’s expensive. Then what if the customers don’t like the glasses after they get them – they’ve never even tried them on! I found the whole idea impracticable. And what’s more, the team didn’t even seem to be fully invested in their project.

Right from the start they told me it was all just a “bit of a hobby” of theirs. And instead of focusing exclusively on their start-up plans during the summer break, three of the four students decided to take internships. It took them six months to decide on a name for their company, and the night before it launched they didn’t even have a functioning website. And this was as an online business! I’d always believed entrepreneurs had to be committed, completely dedicated and have an all-or-nothing approach to their business. And here were these students just messing around, to put it mildly. But they taught me a very painful lesson, one that I find absolutely compelling.

It’s pretty obvious where this is going.
Oh yes, you can say that again. My students’ company – it’s called Warby Parker – was an unbelievable success. It topped FastCompany’s Most Innovative Companies in the World list in 2015. Ahead of Facebook. Ahead of Google. And today the company is valued at over a billion dollars.

Oh dear.
Exactly. And believe me: when you miss out on an opportunity like that, you start second-guessing yourself and asking, “Where on earth did I go wrong? And what lessons can I learn from this?” So that’s how the book came about. I wanted to find better ways of recognising good ideas. And how people not only manage to come up with novel ideas but to champion them and act on them as well – even if they have the same mind-set as my students had. Or maybe because they do!

In your book you call these people “originals” as well as “non-conformists.” You say they shape the world. Do you have to rock the boat to be successful?
Let’s put it this way: it can be very helpful. “Disruption” is a buzzword right now. If you study disruptive ideas, you’re soon struck by the fact that many of them start off with an act of non-conformity, with someone who says, “The way we’ve been solving problem X or Y up to now is completely wrong.” In other words, with someone who challenges the status quo, the majority view – and then not only postulates taking a different path, but actually has the conviction to take that path irrespective of all the obstacles. And non-conformists always have plenty of obstacles to deal with.

Because they stand out from the crowd?
Non-conformists are admired, even idolised, as soon as they achieve success. Look at Steve Jobs, for instance. But believe me: nobody loved Steve Jobs in 1970. As long as non-conformists are still in the process of developing and trying out their ideas, they’re often seen as disconcerting, even irritating. It all starts at school. Sadly, there are studies that show that it’s the most creative students who are least likely to be liked by their teachers. In the workplace, too, people are often afraid to speak up when they have an original idea. And studies have also shown that those who do regularly voice their opinions are less likely to be promoted and they receive fewer pay rises than their co-workers. So for non-conformists who don’t keep their mouths shut, there’s always a price to pay. And that’s something we really need to change. We should be encouraging good ideas rather than stifling them. And we should all have the courage to be more non-conformist in our thinking. Because we need more good, original ideas on this planet – not fewer.

Can you learn how to become a non-conformist idea machine?
Well, obviously you can observe and examine the habits and strategies of people who are particularly good at coming up with good ideas.

Excellent – so where do we begin?
In a lot of cases, originality doesn’t start with something completely new. On the contrary, it’s often something someone sees that they’re already familiar with but which they suddenly see with fresh eyes. So it’s the opposite of déjà vu – what we call vuja de. Take the simple example of lining up for a taxi. How often had Travis Kalanick been forced to wait in line for a taxi while hordes of cars drove past him, frustratingly devoid of passengers? Hundreds of times. But at some point he asked himself, “Why can’t I just ride along with them?

“One of my students asked me if I’d be interested in investing in a start-up that he was planning to set up with a few of his fellow students. I took a long and detailed look at the proposal and said thanks, but no thanks – in the firm belief that the whole thing would be a flop. It was by far the worst business decision I’ve ever made!”

And then he proceeded to found Uber.
Precisely! The thing is we’ve all had plenty of these vuja de experiences. But unlike Travis, we don’t have the courage to make something of them, because we think “I’m no businessman” or “I’m not a coder” or “I’ll never manage to make it work anyway.” And that’s a huge mistake. We’re all too often driven by our fear.

So are successful non-conformists simply more inclined to take risks than others?
No, they’re not. Of course we all have this clichéd image of the entrepreneur in our heads: super ambitious, fearless risk-takers with absolute conviction about their own ideas. That’s what I thought, too. But the closer you look, the clearer it becomes that this whole idea is nonsense. Successful non-conformists have the same fears and doubts as the rest of us. The difference is that they act on their beliefs in spite of all this.

Why’s that?
Because they know or at least feel that they would regret it more if they failed to try than if they tried and failed. And they’re right on the money there. Psychologists have long recognised that the things people regret most in life are almost never things they have done. It’s the things they haven’t done that they simply can’t let go of. That feeling of “What if back then I had…” But that doesn’t mean that successful originals like taking risks or do so more frequently than others. They’re just good at managing the risks.

In what ways?
The decision by the founders of Warby Parker to stick with college and even continue to look for internships was a very good one – even if I saw things differently back then. Now I know better. Studies show that companies whose founders held onto their day jobs are 33 per cent less likely to fail than those in which the founders went all-in from the get-go. Successful non-conformists don’t just rush in blindly. Instead, they act like astute stock market investors. They ensure that they have a safety net in one part of their portfolio before increasing the risk in another. That’s wise. And there’s another thing we can learn from the example of Warby Parker.

What’s that?
I find it hard to admit, but when it comes to good ideas, procrastinating and dawdling can be a really good thing. We proved this in a series of experiments. For example, we gave one group a creative task and asked them to solve it immediately. Another group was given the same task but was allowed to play Minesweeper for a few minutes before starting on the solution. The ones who played Minesweeper first produced significantly better results. I could hardly believe it. But personally I’m more inclined to be the opposite. I’m a staunch precrastinator.

Precrastinator? Is that an actual word?
Yes! Seriously. You know that pressure and panic people feel when they don’t start working on a task till the day before the deadline? Well, I feel it, too – I just get it six months ahead of time. When I was a student, if I had a paper due in March, by September I was – well, let’s just say – pretty near finished. My fellow students used to say to me, “What on earth is wrong with you?”

So you had your book finished long before its due date, right?
No, I didn’t! At least not this time around. I deliberately procrastinated in order to test the results of our research on myself. When I was writing the chapter on the benefits of procrastination, I literally forced myself to stop writing in mid-sentence and just put it away. It was pure agony. But when I came back to it months later, I found that I had all sorts of new ideas and plenty of good new examples I hadn’t thought of earlier – none of which would otherwise be in the book today.

But all of this surely can’t apply to the sort of procrastinator who really waits till the last minute before starting work, can it?
No, you’re right. Because then you’re simply in survival mode and can’t possibly have your best ideas. The trick isn’t to put everything off till the last minute. It’s to be quick to start but slow to finish. That way, you leave the door open for new ideas as long as possible – without falling behind. Warby Parker took so long to find a name because they did exactly that. They collected and rejected one idea after another until they had found the right one.

But is that really such a good thing to do? Wouldn’t it be much better to come up with a good idea quickly than to keep digging and digging before finally choosing one out of hundreds?
Absolutely not! The best way to come up with an original idea is to generate as large a volume of options as possible. The first few ideas you have are always ones you’re more or less familiar with – that’s why they occur to you first. To hit upon something truly original and unconventional you have to wade through all the familiar stuff first. Then it starts to get interesting. Most people totally underestimate this. They stop brainstorming after an hour and are happy to have collected 20 ideas. But it takes about 200 ideas before you reach the limits of your originality. That has to be your goal. You need as big a haystack as possible if you want to find good needles in it. How many of Beethoven’s works would you say can be hailed as true masterpieces?

Hm, shall we say a dozen? Or perhaps 20?
But he composed well over 500 pieces. And you can see the same thing with businesses, too. Pixar, for instance, rejected 500 film scripts before choosing Cars as the movie they wanted to make. In a typical year, companies such as Fisher-Price or Mattel look at 4,000 designs before selecting the 12 models that will go into production.

Apart from much longer brainstorming sessions, what else can companies do to help nurture good ideas?
The biggest enemy of innovation and good ideas in companies is groupthink. When too many people who are far too similar work on a project for too long, that’s when things can get dangerous. What’s lacking is diversity of thought. Put very simply, this is why I would make sure first of all that the people I hire are as diverse as possible. And these people should have the opportunity to voice their differing ideas and opinions – even if they don’t fit in with the majority opinion. It could be an ideas box or just a shared Google Doc.

You mean the good old suggestions box?
Not exactly. It’s not somewhere to deposit mindless ideas. What matters is the willingness of the company management to look at these ideas and proposals on a regular basis, to take them seriously and, whenever appropriate and possible, to translate them into visible actions. Innovation tournaments with awards for the winning ideas – combined with real money investments in these suggestions – can be another good way of showing that the company takes novel ideas seriously and really is willing to reward them. And finally, it’s paramount that top management themselves are open to new ideas as well as critical comments and aren’t easily offended or likely to have hostile reactions. That’s not easy. But believe me: it’s a good idea!

Adam Grant was born in 1982 and is Professor of Management and Psychology at the Wharton Business School. He works as a consultant for organisations and businesses, and all of his books have been on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest TED talk has had almost five million views to date, and he is currently working on a new book with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.