In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant tells the story of a young entrepreneur named Michelle Perry who wanted to create a product to supply wireless power. When technical experts refused to assist with a project so apparently quixotic, she instead recruited people simply to design parts based on her specs. By keeping mum about her goal, Perry was able to attract blue-chip collaborators, with whose help she achieved sufficient proof of concept to land funding.
Grant's point: sharing a bold vision inspires people. But when your vision is so bold that it provokes skepticism, you can disguise it as something more prosaic: what Grant calls a "Trojan horse."
I wonder whether Originals, as well as Grant's 2013 bestseller Give and Take, are not themselves Trojan horses. Both books deliver to business readers what business readers want: evidence-based best practices to make them more successful. But at the same time, Grant nudges those readers down the road toward courage, inventiveness, and generosity. The promise is better results. The payoff is a better you.
Grant, a professor at Wharton, has this effect because his books are not only among the best-researched in the psycho-socio-management genre, but also among the most human. When he concludes Originals with a list of "Actions for Impact," it feels discordant after so many rich personality profiles and surprising insights into human behavior. Typically Grant resists the reductive: To illustrate the use and abuse of coalitions in popularizing radical ideas, he devotes almost 20 pages to the wonderfully twisty tale of schisms in the women's suffrage movement. I imagine he cringes when people say his work offers "the secret" to anything.
Originals tackles a more familiar and diffuse theme than Give and Take, which posited that helping others (in the one-on-one as opposed to save-the-planet sense) is the best way to help oneself. Broadly, Originals falls under the rubric of innovation. But Grant is less interested in the effectiveness of creativity tools (brainstorming: friend or foe?) than in motivating divergent thinkers and making the world safe for whatever divergent thoughts they may produce. To be an original one must not only come up with new ideas but also Sherpa those ideas into the wider world, battling skepticism, incomprehension, and outright hostility in the process.
The choice of the word "originals" over, say, "mavericks" or "disruptors," says everything about Grant's non-hyperbolic approach to change. Originals, he writes, "are actually far more ordinary than we realize." They're curious and committed, but also cautious and prone to self-doubt. They are entrepreneurs like the founders of Warby Parker who keep their day jobs, and activists like those who once rallied Chileans to oppose Augusto Pinochet by turning their lights on and off and driving slow. Originals can be inventors, dissenters, or simply questioners of the status quo. Their ideas don't even have to be right to make a difference.
The book targets, in roughly equal measures, originals-in-the-making and those positioned to champion or suppress them. Although Grant covers idea-generation well, he seems more interested in the expression and proliferation of those ideas. He reminds us, for example, that in a world theoretically hungry for novelty, people reject the unfamiliar because they lack a framework to evaluate it. Conversely, lack of understanding may cause people to throw the unfamiliar a ticker-tape parade. Grant's example of the former--what he calls a "false negative--is Seinfeld, a show that devoted a whole story arc to the unlikelihood of its own premise. His example of the latter, a "false positive," is the Segway, which Steve Jobs compared in terms of originality to the PC.
"In reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation--it's idea selection," Grant writes. It's a subject not discussed nearly enough elsewhere.
A master of research, Grant is most illuminating and entertaining when peppering with empirical buckshot the thick hide of conventional wisdom. Among the most satisfying of his takedowns is the bromide "We hire for cultural fit," which translates roughly as "We hire people like us." When companies "attract, select, socialize, and retain similar people," Grant writes, "they effectively weed out diversity in thoughts and values."
I love that he explicitly mentions "values." Here's an idea: At your next town hall meeting, present the question of whether a company can thrive when its people hold divergent values. After everyone has shouted "No!," lead a discussion on what that actually means and watch the edges of conformity start to crumble.
In a discussion of why it's dangerous to appear too positive, Grant quotes a former publishing professional who notes that book reviewers, even when they love a new title, feel obligated to "add a paragraph at the end noting where it fell short." That way, readers will know the reviewer is discerning. So here goes: Originals is, ironically, a less original book than Give and Take, which was animated by a single, revelatory concept and introduced readers to an exciting new thought leader. Some of the ideas in Originals--for example a debunking of first-mover advantage and the desirability of generating lots of ideas--will be familiar from other books. And I'd have given the effects of birth order on originality a few paragraphs, not half a chapter.
But if this sophomore work is slightly less cohesive than its predecessor, it is just as packed with vivid examples and illuminating insights. For individuals, it's a guide to effective deviation. For leaders, it's a call to unleash their deviants.