Grant, Adam. (2016). Originals: How Non-Conformist Move the World. New York: Viking.
Why this book?
This book offers examples of why the outlier contributor and the ones we might listen to the least, might be our most prized resource. In Stakeholder Centered Coaching framework we encourage leaders to include among their stakeholders those who offer differing points of view and who the leader may have difficulty, or strained relationships assuming you trust the person. These individuals often, over the course of the change process, wind up being the most valuable to include. The book also offers insight into the role of timing, varied experiences, and the use of enemies to the likelihood of successful results.
In some circles, there is a belief that non-conformists can be hazardous to the organization. In the area of accounting, that may be true. Yet, if creativity as the lifeblood to fuel needed innovation, there is plenty of room outside the accounting department where non-conformity is needed. The question is how to benefit from the Mavericks in the organization while focusing on results.
When considering the risk involved for the non-conformist and the organization, George Bernard Shaw’s quote seems to fit: “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.” (It is about all people, not just man). Of course, there are limits to anything. This book concentrates on the advantages of being open to creative ideas and people.
“Research demonstrates that it is the most creative children who are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet.” This is also an issue for managers and executives. Managing the creative type is not easy. Author William Deresiewicz wrote a book called Excellent Sheep (2015) which postulates students are taught to follow direction (ah, Frederick Taylor still has an impact) as well as organizations who want conformance as the standard.
Here is a story in the book. “An angel investor offered $250,000 to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to bankroll Apple in 1977. It came with an ultimatum: Wozniak would have to leave Hewlett Packard. Wozniak refused at first. ‘I still intended to be at that company (HP) forever,’ Wozniak reflects. ‘My psychological block was really that I didn’t want to start a company because I was just afraid,’ he admitted. Wozniak changed his mind only after being encouraged by Jobs, multiple friends, and his own parents.”
When we look to the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world, we think they are just different, more self-assured, and lucky. Not True. It may seem like they look for risk, in fact, they avoid it. Page and Brin of Google stayed at Stanford because they didn’t want to drop out of the Ph.D. program. They actually tried to sell Google for $2,000,000 in 1997. The offer was rejected. Lucky for them.
There are many other examples in the book of very successful people who kept their day job while working on new ideas. Endeavor co-founder and CEO Linda Rottenberg observes “They take the risk out of risk-taking.” Most of these creators don’t like risk any more than the rest of us do.
A growing body of evidence suggests that entrepreneurs don’t like risk any more than the rest of us. They tend to plan out scenarios, hedge their bets with what-if plans and have Plan B or C or D ready to go. “Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice.” Scott Adams said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Many times geniuses don’t recognize when they have a good idea developed. They just keep kissing frogs and eventually, a great idea pops out.
One lesson I got in the book is having many great ideas increases your chance of the major hit rather than waiting for the one big earth-shattering product. “Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand. In a study of over 15,000 classical music compositions, the more pieces a composer produced in a given five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.” What this means is most of what Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven wrote never played in front of audiences or has lasted long enough to be heard today by a Symphony Orchestra. Edison’s “1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.”
“If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative,” Steve Jobs said back in 1982, “you have to not have the same bag of experience as everyone else does. Having a wide range of experiences also helps in the production of new ideas. The data on Nobel Prize winners by researchers at Michigan State follows:
Artistic Hobby Odds for Nobel Prize winners v. scientists
Music: playing an instrument, composing, conducting 2X
Arts: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting 7X
Crafts: woodworking, mechanics, electronics, glassblowing 7.5X
Writing: poetry, plays, novels, short stories, essays, books 12X
Performing: amateur actor, dancer, magician 22X
Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, inventors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. Here are some more thoughts from the book:
- Time living abroad didn’t matter: it was time working abroad, being actively engaged in design in a foreign country, that predicted whether their new collections were hits.
- The more the foreign culture differed from that of their native land, the more that experience contributed to the director’s creativity. An American gained little from working in Canada, compared to the originality dividends of a project in Korea or Japan.
- The most important factor was depth—the amount of time spent working abroad. A short stint did little good because directors weren’t there long enough to internalize the new ideas from the foreign culture and synthesize them with their old perspectives.
Intuition has some strengths and also some weaknesses. Steve Jobs made many great decisions based on intuition. He also made a foolish decision about the Segway. Erik Dane, a researcher says that intuition is helpful within the domain where we have experience. However, the same confidence can be negative when we apply overconfidence in areas where we have little or no experience. Any strength overused can be negative.
There is an old adage that says, “go out on a limb, that is where the fruit is.” It seems to us we should be on a familiar tree before going too far out. At the same time expressing creative ideas can be risky within an organization if there is not enough ecological safety. Einstein’s quote may help, “Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds.” Keep reminding yourself that hubris about your thinking can also get you in trouble. There is a balance because surrounding yourself with people who stroke your ego can be as debilitating. The following quote by Howard Tullman explains, “Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds comfort.”
“Do you believe you can effect change, and do you care enough to try? If you believe you’re stuck with the status quo, you’ll choose neglect when you’re not committed, and persistence when you are. If you do feel you can make a difference, but you aren’t committed to the person, country, or organization, you’ll leave. Only when you believe your actions matter and care deeply will you consider speaking up.” Charles Garfield (1986), Peak Performers, says that internal locus of control, or efficacy, is the number one contributor of the best performers on the job. Efficacy is the belief that you can do something about the situation. It is the opposite of “learned helplessness.”
Leadership is essential since it affects the system, “At work, our sense of commitment and control depends more on our direct boss than on anyone else.” This was born out by the Gallup Organization (1999) First Break All the Rules, where they posit people leave managers, they don’t leave organizations.
However, if you are able to attract a curmudgeon of a manager to your viewpoint, they can be your best support. “Disagreeable managers are typically the last people we seek when we’re going to go out on a limb, but they are sometimes our best advocates.” “It is often the prickly people who are more comfortable taking a stand against others and against convention.” As a Google employee put it, disagreeable managers may have a bad user interface but a great operating system.
Bill Gross, Idealab wanted to find out what drove success versus failure. “The most important factor was not the uniqueness of the idea, the capabilities, and execution of the team, the quality of the business model, or the availability of funding. The number one thing was timing. Timing accounted for forty-two percent of the difference between success and failure.” So, having experienced people with political savvy can be as important as having a great idea. “Sprinting is a fine strategy for a young genius, but becoming an old master requires the patience of experimentation to run a marathon.”
There is more discussion in the book about timing, those who take longer to think through issues (some people call this procrastination). There are distinct advantages of reflective thought as well as intuitive quick thinking. Daniel Kahneman (2013) Thinking, Fast and Slow, goes into great detail of the advantages of both types of processing.
Another creative tool is espoused by Karl Weick. He says, “putting old things in new combinations and new things in old combinations.” When you remember some of the heuristics found in life, this may be one of the most important. Synthesizing, recombining, and reframing a problem can be extremely beneficial. There are many examples in business from Post-It Notes (failed adhesive compound), Velcro (came from burrs in a dog’s fur), and Air Bags (hand grenade technology),
Here is another provocative point. “Enemies Make Better Allies Than Frenemies.” The book outlines how enemies are more consistent and overt with the objections. Those who are friends may have more hidden agendas that might be a surprise down the road. Michelle Duffy, University of Minnesota, explains, “It takes more emotional energy and coping resources to deal with individuals who are inconsistent.” This is a concept we encourage you to read more about.
Bridgewater Company is referenced about their culture in the book Principles by Ray Dalio. In 2010, Bridgewater’s returns exceeded the combined profits of Google, eBay, Yahoo, and Amazon.” Bridgewater created a transparent organization structure that sustains safe, open dialogue to create the best possible future.” Before you criticize people, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” A diversity of ideas is expected and nourished. “If you hire people who fit your culture, you’ll end up with people who reinforce rather than challenge one another’s perspectives.”
Ray Dalio, Bridgewater points out, “The greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability of people to have the thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true.”
Creating a safe culture to express, talk out ideas, and have a support system that honors the diversity of thought is crucial in generating new solutions to problems that exist. “Research shows that surface acting burns us out: Faking emotions that we don’t really feel is both stressful and exhausting. If we want to express a set of emotions, we need to actually experience them.” For instance: Anger can create a sense of urgency but just reacting with anger might get you in trouble. Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully suggest that the key is to be “simultaneously hot and cool-headed. The heat fuels action and change; the coolness shapes the action and change into legitimate and viable forms.” “But once the heat is on, how do we keep our cool?”
The book ends with recommendations for schools and how to deal with Originals.
Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Garfield, C. (1986). Peak performers. New York: Avon Books.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New