Adam Grant is not your typical business school professor. Just 34, he reached tenure while still in his 20s and finished his doctorate in less than three years. He writes op-eds with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and got a book blurb from the likes of J.J. Abrams, the director of the new “Star Wars” film. His 2013 book, “Give and Take,” which challenged the old adage about nice guys finishing last, was translated into 27 languages.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that unconventionality is the topic of his new book. In “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,” Grant examines how people with groundbreaking ideas make them happen. In the process, he overturns the belief that trailblazers take radical risks (they often keep their day jobs and work at it on the side). He busts the notion that our customers are the best source of ideas (it’s actually our peers). And he sounds a warning over the potential downsides of strong, committed corporate cultures (over time, they can lead to slower growth).
The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Your last book was such a huge success. How did you arrive at this topic for your next one?
Probably the most frequent question I’ve been asked since “Give and Take” came out was “I work in a culture of ‘takers’ — how do I change it?” The more I reflected on that question, the more I realized two things. One, I did an inadequate job of answering it in “Give and Take.” And two, that’s a specific version of a much broader question that we all struggle with, which is: If I have an idea for how to make my workplace better, or I see a rule that doesn’t make sense or a practice that seems backward, how do I speak up? How do I change it?
When I work with leaders, one of the biggest challenges they face is fighting groupthink. So I guess those two things came together for me.
Creativity is a topic that’s obviously been covered in books so much in the past. What do you think this contributes that isn’t already out there?
This book is about everything that happens after you have an idea. There’s a ton of creativity books about ‘Here’s how to generate ideas’ or ‘Here’s how to think differently from everyone else.’ I don’t think we have a shortage of creative ideas in the world. I think where the shortage exists is that people don’t know how to champion them. They don’t know how to speak up. They don’t know how to get heard. They don’t know how to find allies. They don’t know whether one or two of the dozen ideas they’ve come up with is any good. So basically, this is a book about how — once you have an idea — you bring it into reality.
I found some of the evidence and myth-busting you present really surprising, and some of it felt more like common sense — even if it went against conventional wisdom. For instance, the idea that procrastination has an upside. What concept in your research did you find most surprising?
One of the biggest ones for me was the story about UBeam founder and wireless power entrepreneur Meredith Perry, and the associated evidence about “tempered radicals.” It was really counterintuitive to me that you could be more successful by hiding your purpose, and that you could attract more allies and convert skeptics by masking the goal you were really trying to achieve. I think a second one is this idea that “frenemies” are actually worse allies than enemies.
The discussion about the pitfalls that organizations see when they have strong cultures was really interesting, especially since many leaders seem to think a strong corporate culture is essential. What are the downsides?
We should be clear: There are upsides and downsides. They’re great for attracting uniquely motivated and talented people, and making it a place where they feel like they belong. But especially as organizations grow, strong cultures tend to predict more stagnation, more inertia, and more difficulty with innovation and change.
This is so clear in hiring. The studies that Jim Barron led of these Silicon Valley firms that hired on cultural fit — as opposed to skills or potential — showed that they were more likely to survive, and more likely to get to IPO. But after that point, they saw much lower growth rates.
I love this idea of hiring on “cultural contribution” instead. Instead of bringing in people who fit the culture, let’s bring in people who enrich the culture. We need to reward and promote people who think differently from the majority, and it’s sometimes really hard to do that in a strong culture.
Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.