Originals | Book Review

Driven by great curiosity, Adam Grant’s exploration of pioneering minds reminds us of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Sheryl Sandberg’s forward refutes the “Conventional wisdom holds that some people are innately creative, while most have few original thoughts. Some people are born to be leaders, and the rest are followers. Some people can have real impact, but the majority can’t.” (p. ix) On the contrary, Grant reveals originals

“Feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway.” p. 28

In Grant’s penetrating inquiry of what originals do can be found what good leaders often should do, and may be reinforced with a personal leadership philosophy. In multiple instances, Grant finds success more common when core values are communicated when leading change. He finds the hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists -- with curiosity (p. 7) the starting point.

Grant coins the wonderful term Risk Portfolios (p. 19) explaining why people become original in one part of their lives while remaining quite conventional in others. Also, economists find (p. 22) that as teenagers, successful entrepreneurs were nearly three times as likely as their peers to break rules and engage in illicit behavior and subsequently (p. 25) they set out to create a new vision of their roles, more ideal but still realistic.

As with the Knowing-Doing Gap, application (Parts II and III) of Grant’s findings prescribe closing the gap between insight and action (p. 25). Thematic leadership references such as Situational Awareness (think Energize2Lead or temperament), Communication & Feedback and Leveraging Conflict confirm relevance and utility for effective self and organizational improvement.

Feedback and Conflict

Bolstered by Ira Glass (p. 36-37), This American Life and Robert Sutton (p. 37) “Original thinkers will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures,” originals adopt a leader mindset, embracing failure as a necessary process, while gathering critical feedback (p. 38). In contrast, when managers vet novel ideas, they’re in an evaluative mindset (p.40). Grant reveals that as we gain knowledge about a domain, we become prisoners of our prototypes (p. 41). As leaders and team builders we must consider such tendencies, especially in dynamic markets. Grant’s research instructs us (p. 42) we ought to turn more to our colleagues – e.g. fellow artists, rather than test audiences or managers to assess originality, or even better, develop a few ideas before (p. 44) screening other’s suggestions. Further, artistic hobbies (p. 47) significantly magnify originality, or the personality trait called openness. We can likewise gain breadth by widening our cultural repertoires (p. 48) and the deeper the better.

Grant indirectly advocates for objective and inclusive After Action Reviews (AARs), sharing Alison Fragale’s (p. 65) findings that people are punished for trying to exercise power without status, or when exerting influence but lacking respect, others perceive those speaking up as difficult, coercive & self-serving.

Think of (building social credits for later issues) the Accommodate Strategy in Leveraging the Power of Conflict workshop. Edwin Hollander called these tokens idiosyncrasy credits, or latitude, to deviate from group expectations (p. 67). We must approach others with new suggestions according to their expectations (E2L) since our tendency, according to Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick – (p. 76), is only hearing our point of view (the song in our head). This is why we often under communicate our ideas. John Kotter emphasizes we under communicate change by a factor of ten (p. 76).

Leader Timing and Teams

Grant notices great originals (p. 102) are great procrastinators, but they don’t skip planning altogether,  similar to Stephen Covey’s quadrant two opportunistic premeditation. This allow us (p. 94) time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea.

Marketing researcher Lisa Bolton validates Grant (p. 104) “Although first movers face some advantages in particular industries, the academic research remains mixed and does not support an overall first-mover advantage,” exemplified by the terrific story of Nintendo (pp. 104-105) acquiring Odyssey’s distribution rights for Japan in 1975 and launching the successful Nintendo Entertainment System.

Grant advises as we age (p. 112), our best bet is to adopt an experimental approach, since originality depends on our style of thinking (p. 109), and Chicago Economist David Galenson‘s cautions that conceptual innovators are sprinters and experimental innovators are marathoners.

Grant recommends (p. 117) an avoid (conflict) strategy (to let people cool down and regain perspective) when forming alliances with opposing groups, especially when a faction is “all in,” such as the (p. 118) vegans showing nearly three times as much prejudice toward vegetarians as vegetarians showed toward vegans.

In a fascinating discovery, Grant reveals (p. 121) common methods of engagement (think E2L again) allow affinity formation even if groups care about different causes, showcased by Meredith Perry‘s uBeam wireless power transmission observation (pp. 122-124): “Every single person that is now working at the company didn’t think it was possible or was extremely skeptical.”

Application | Originality and Leadership

Grant again reminds us of the platinum rule (treat others the way they wish to be treated), citing teenagers defy rules when they’re enforced in a controlling manner (p. 164). Creative groups (via Donald MacKinnon) had parents exercising discipline with explanations – “emphasis was placed upon the development of one’s ethical code” – akin to a family contract.

According to Grant, (p. 177) there’s a fine line between having a strong culture and operating like a cult. Sociologist James Baron finds company founders employ three dominant organizational model templates: professional, star, and commitment (pp. 179-180), with commitment far superior to the others. Also, (p. 205) the relative importance of multiple values guides action. Or, when organizations fail to prioritize principles, their performance suffers. We should keep this in mind when composing and sharing our personal leadership philosophy or organizational values.

Recalling we all have common fears, Grant suggests (p. 214) the trick is to make fear your friend, or similar to Goldsmith, beware of our Triggers. Use energy wisely, per (p. 216) Susan Cain “Your stop system slows you down and makes you cautious and vigilant.” Rather than trying to suppress a strong emotion, it’s easier to convert it into a different one.

Dave Hoffman and Grant found that the most inspiring way to convey a vision is to outsource it to the people who are actually affected by it (p. 221), or describe a vision (p. 222) and then invite a customer to bring it to life with a personal story. The author closes with John Kotter’s admonishment that the first error (p. 232) companies undertaking changes make was failing to establish a sense of urgency.

Further Actions

Grant offers individual, leader and parent & teacher (pp. 245-254) Actions for Impact, for reference and continuing leadership improvement.

A necessary bookshelf addition for leaders, and more importantly, the curious.

Note: Adam Grant generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | March 2016