Originals by Adam Grant Book Review by Bob Schoultz All American Leadership
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Why this book: Selected by my All American Leadership reading group, with the enthusiastic endorsement of Rob Nielsen, who finished it and immediately began to read it again, in order to better absorb the many ideas in it. I and many others in the group had read Adam Grant’s Give and Take, which was very well received. Rob insisted that Originals was very different than Give and Take and offered a wealth of new ideas. He was right.
My Impressions: From the very beginning I could tell this book would be different than many business books, in that the scope is broader, and more sweeping. Every chapter offers a variation on the almost-goes-without-saying premise that those who create positive change in the world are those who march to a somewhat different drummer than the rest of us. He refers to these as “originals,” those who are willing to buck conventional wisdom, and try something different. The book is really about the creative process, and how creative people think, create, interact with the more conventional among us who keep civilization functioning, and how these “originals” bring their ideas to fruition to make a positive impact.
There are so many ideas in this book – that for my own benefit, this is more a summary than a review. It has served me well to go back and review each chapter. Below, I try to summarize each of the many aspects of being an “original” that Adam Grant outlines in this book of that name (page numbers are from the Viking hardback edition, published 2016):
Chapter One: Creative Destruction – The Risky Business of Going Against the Grain. He makes the point that originals are willing to take risk, but they are not wild risk takers – they manage it and protect their equities, while still following their vision and their heart. Most successful entrepreneurs keep their day jobs while they are planning for success in their new venture. They also diversify their risk, not only in business, but also in life. Similar to Mindset, he states that originality is not a fixed trait; it is a free choice.
Chapter Two: Blind Inventors and One Eyed Investors –The Art and Science of Recognizing Original Ideas. His key point in this chapter: the best creatives generate lots of ideas. In order to have a few that have impact, there need to be perhaps hundreds that don’t. Leaders and investors need to encourage idea generation – and this chapter gives some guidelines on how to select those that have the best chance for impact. His final sentence in this chapter in referring to originals is “When we judge their greatness, we focus not on their averages, but on their peaks.”
He says “…the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation – it’s idea selection.”31 This requires balancing passion and enthusiasm (the blind inventor) with cold realism and marketing acumen to sell the new (and presumably) great idea to those who can make it work. He challenges the idea that if you want to do quality work, you have to do less of it – he says that is patently false. “..when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.” 37
Chapter Three: Out on a Limb – Speaking Truth to Power. He says, “this chapter is about when to speak up and how to do it effectively, without jeopardizing our careers and relationships.” He offers ideas about how presenting limitations of an idea up front can be an effective sales strategy. When our organization is going in a direction we don’t like, or refuses to accept our input, he discusses when and under what circumstances we should leave, speak up, persist in our crusade, or simply let go. He calls this four choice matrix: Exit, Voice, Persistence, and Neglect. He points out that Voice and Exit are often the only viable alternatives if one wants to have an impact.
He gives a great example of how (and why!) a sales team succeeded by beginning their sales pitch with all the reasons why their proposal might fail. He also makes the against-the-grain point that disagreeable managers can be very valuable, in that they “…may have a bad user interface but a great operating system.” 81 He also addresses how women have to give voice to their ideas differently than men in today’s culture.
Chapter Four: Fools Rush in – Timing, Strategic Procrastination, and the First Mover Disadvantage. He says, “My goal here is to overturn common assumptions about timing by examining the unexpected benefits of delaying when we start and finish a task, as well as when we unleash our ideas onto the world…procrastination can be as much of a virtue as a vice.” 94 He points out how patiently waiting for the right moment to act can yield better results and greater success than hurrying to be first to market with an idea. The creative process requires originals to have time to let ideas germinate, ferment, and flesh out. Not forcing originals to be driven by a timeline is part of the tension between efficiency – keeping everything on schedule – and effectiveness – letting things happen in a way that works best. “Being original doesn’t require being first,” he says. “It just means being different and better.” 105 He quotes Daniel Pink on “the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares.” 113
Procrastination, he points out, also leaves us more open to adaptation and improvisation. One of the key examples he uses in this chapter is Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech, which King didn’t write until late the night before. The section in which he declares “I have a Dream,” he improvised on the spot, after hearing someone in the audience yell to him “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” He might not have felt the same freedom to deviate from his script, had he been working on the details of his speech for weeks.
Chapter Five: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse – Creating and Maintaining Coalitions. This chapter is about how passionate originals can build coalitions to support their their original idea. His “Goldilocks theory” is that in order to build alliances and coalitions, one must “temper the cause, cooling it as much as possible…to draw allies into joining the cause itself, what’s needed is a moderately tempered message that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.” 117
In this chapter he talks about the “narcissism of small differences” that drive people and organizations apart who are mostly on the same page. While ends may be the same, disagreement over means leads to break up or disunity of effort. Originals can win partners and allies by getting agreement on actions and methods, which serve as the Trojan Horse to smuggle in real long term goals and intent. He states paradoxically that our best allies are those who may have started out against us, but were won over to our side -these are often more reliable than those who’ve been with us all along.
Chapter Six: Rebel with a Cause – How Siblings, Parents, and Mentors Nurture Originality. This is a fascinating chapter which gives guidance to parents and those who are responsible for developing others. He says we should discipline children and others with a “logic of appropriateness” rather than a “logic of consequences.” Logic of appropriateness calls on me to ask what a (good) person like me does in this situation – a question of values. The logic of consequences demands a cost benefit analysis and the uncertain art of predicting consequences. It’s a values vs goals distinction. In the later case, I’m basing the goodness or badness of certain behavior purely on outcomes, which can’t always be predicted, rather than intent. It is an appeal to character rather than advocating specific behavior. “Please don’t be a cheater,” rather than “Please don’t cheat.” Also in this chapter he examines why later born children are often the most rebellious and most creative in finding their paths.
Chapter Seven: Rethinking Group Think – The Myths of Strong Cultures, Cults, and Devil’s Advocates. He looks at organizational models and finds that those based on common commitment to a purpose achieve the greatest long term success. But he also points out that such organizations can become overly homogenous over time and eventually often weed out diversity of thought and values which is essential to continued success. Big companies with strong cultures often become too insular and may have great difficulty recognizing change and the need to adapt. Many leaders in an effort to trouble shoot a new idea, appoint a devil’s advocate to represent dissenting positions. He points out why that is often ineffective: The appointed devil’s advocate is not committed to the dissenting position – s/he is merely playing a role and everyone knows it. Better, says Grant, to “unearth” within the organization, true dissenters who strongly believe in the dissenting position. “Whereas people doubt assigned dissenters, genuine dissenters challenge people to doubt themselves.” 193
A good part of this chapter is describing the culture that Ray Dalio has created in Bridgewater Associates, an extremely successful financial investment company. “Bridgewater has prevented groupthink by inviting dissenting opinions from every employee in the company” 189 “The goal is to create an idea meritocracy, where the best ideas win. To get the best ideas on the table in the first place, you need radical transparency.” 191 He claims to be willing to fire people for not speaking up and not dissenting when that is how they feel. Much of this chapter describes what that looks like at Bridgewater Associates.
Chapter Eight: Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady – Managing Anxiety, Apathy, Ambivalence, and Anger. Probably my favorite chapter. Grant examines what he calls “the emotional drama involved in going against the grain.” He begins the chapter with a section on “the positive power of negative thinking,” pointing out what psychologist Julie Norem calls “defensive pessimism” and how it can help us muster the energy to prepare for things not going our way. Grant further develops Norem’s ideas, noting how combining “strategic optimism” with defensive pessimism can be a sweet spot which enjoys the advantages of each. In his Great by Choice, Jim Collins called defensive pessimism “productive paranoia.”
Grant then talks about reframing fear or anxiety as “excitement” – excitement about the opportunity the fearful event presents, and how getting oneself excited is a more effective strategy for dealing with fear and anxiety than simply trying to calm oneself down. His section on “outsourcing inspiration” tells us how having others sell your idea is more effective than you doing it yourself. An effective psychology for winning allies to new causes is to make it look like a movement. “It’s easier to rebel when it feels like an act of conformity. Other people are involved, so we can join in.”227 He describes using humor as a strategy for disarming opponents. He discusses motivating those who are unwilling to assume risk to achieve change, by alerting them to the potential costs of NOT changing, and why this works better than trying to convince them of potential gains. “Taking risk is more appealing when they’re faced with a guaranteed loss if they don’t.” 233
He goes on to discuss how to productively harness anger as a powerful motivating tool to stimulate positive change. He warns against feeding retaliatory anger and instead encourages stimulating “empathic anger” which support victims of injustice or those who are not getting opportunities they deserve. Empathic anger generates energy to create a better system rather than simply seeking revenge.
He concludes the book by noting how originals embrace the uphill battle. I liked his final line: “Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.” 243.
Criticism of Originals: It’s strength seems also to be a weakness. There are SO many new perspectives and ideas, it almost became confusing. Each chapter with a new theme, and within each chapter a number of new perspectives and ideas. At the end, I was almost overwhelmed with new perspectives. Sometimes the ideas, concepts and perspectives seemed connected only by being somehow related to creating, marketing, and implementing new ideas. A pretty broad theme. That said, the book is rich with stimulating and inspiring concepts and perspectives that run counter to conventional wisdom. My and the reader’s challenge is to find the one, two, or three which we can use, and keep the rest in reserve. It’s a bit like a post I recently saw on LinkedIn – Inc.com’s list of 100 of the most motivating quotes. They’re all really good. But I can only handle one or two at a time.
SOME ADDITIONAL QUOTES AND INSIGHTS FROM ORIGINALS:
-He opens the first chapter and thus the book with this great quote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw. (I’ve seen a different version of this same insight in a quote by Steve Jobs.)
-“Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before Vuja de is the reverse – we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.” 7
– “..originality is an act of destruction. Advocating for new systems often requires demolishing the old way of doing things, and we hold back for fear of rocking the boat. … Most of us opt to fit in rather than stand out. ‘On matters of style, swim with the current,’ Thomas Jefferson allegedly advised, but ‘on matters of principle, stand like a rock.’”13
-Look beyond the enthusiasm someone has for their original idea and look to their enthusiasm for execution. 57
-On the dangers of intuition and passion :”Intuitions are only trustworthy when people build up experience making judgments in a predictable environment. And yet in a rapidly changing world, the lessons of experience can easily point us in the wrong direction.” 53
-He speaks of creative vs evaluative mindsets – both are necessary for different reasons. People in positions of power and authority HAVE TO assume a more evaluative mindset in order to manage risk to many people -the innocent bystanders who could get hurt by a bad idea. 44
-“If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative, you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does.” Steve Jobs 45 And Grant advocates a breadth of experience and perspective to help connect specific ideas to a broader context.
-We are often poor judges of our own work. When we think one of our ideas or creations is awesome, often it isn’t. We need the input of our colleagues in our field (not the public) to help us know what is worth investing in.
-There are two major dimensions of social hierarchy that are often lumped together: power and status. …people were punished for trying to exercise power without status. 65
“Idiosyncrasy credits – the latitude to deviate from the group’s expectations. Idiosyncrasy credits accrue through respect, not rank: they’re based on contributions.” 67
-When selling an idea, he suggests considering leading with downsides. It disarms the audience which is poised to pick you apart. Unbridled optimism often comes off as dishonest salesmanship. Leading with limitations almost drives the listener into being a defender. 69-70
-“It is also best to introduce a delay between the presentation of the idea and the evaluation of it, which provides time for it to sink in.” 78
-The “middle-status conformity effect – the middle segment of …hierarchy – where the majority of people in an organization are found -is dominated by insecurity…. to maintain and then gain status, you play a game of follow the leader, conforming to prove your worth as a group member.” 82-83 Grant’s point: Don’t waste too much time trying to get the middle managers on board….they have the most to lose if the boss doesn’t like your idea.
-Quoting Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make when they go by.”99
-Great originals are great procrastinators, but they don’t skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities. 102
-Dissenting opinions are useful, even when they’re wrong. 185
-A culture that focuses too heavily on solutions becomes “a culture of advocacy, dampening inquiry. If you’re always expected to have an answer ready, you’ll arrive at meetings with your diagnosis complete…” 197 The old “don’t give me problems, give me solutions” approach can make people hesitant to point out problems they see – often critical problems – for which they might not have a solution.
-“The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.” 209
“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.” 234