Adam Grant Explains How to Unleash Originality in Your Organization

Christina Folz By Christina Folz June 19, 2018
Adam Grant Explains How to Unleash Originality in Your Organization

​Adam Grant speaks at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

CHICAGO—If you want to hire original thinkers who will drive innovation, stop looking for people who will be a good "cultural fit" and start seeking those who can make a cultural contribution, said best-selling author Adam Grant.

"How can we create cultures where people are encouraged to speak out?" asked Grant, who delivered the June 19 keynote at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition. "I've come to believe that HR has more influence on these cultures than any other role."

Yet when HR leaders focus on "fit," they put a higher premium on homogeneity than originality, said Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Instead, they should assess "what's missing from the culture and how … you find people who are going to enrich it."

Grant, who wrote Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Penguin Books, 2016), has spent decades studying what sets the most innovative companies apart from the rest. At Ideo, for example, a global firm that popularized the concept of design thinking, "They don't care whether you match the culture," Grant said. "They want to know, 'Can you contribute to the culture?' "

Taking that approach fosters not only the traditional dimensions of diversity, such as those of ethnicity, religion and gender, but also the varied perspectives that lead employees to generate bold ideas. Below are some of Grant's other tips for recognizing and championing creative thought.  

Create a Problem Box Instead of a Suggestion Box 

In characterizing the typical attitude of many leaders, Grant pointed to a statement we've all heard: "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions."

"I think this is a bad sentence," he said, "and I think it's a part of a dangerous philosophy."

Here's why: Unfortunately, that attitude often stifles dialogue. Employees are afraid to speak about the biggest problems they observe, Grant said, because those issues are too complicated to lend themselves to obvious solutions.

Creative companies do it differently. For the workforce at Bridgewater Associates, a global investment firm whose advisors warned their clients about the 2008 financial crisis in 2007, "one of the principles is that nobody has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it," Grant said. 

In fact, in giving performance reviews, Bridgewater managers evaluate people based on how willing they are to challenge their boss and the status quo. "In most organizations, it's the opposite," Grant said—which is one reason so many leaders develop blind spots.

Take Your Unfamiliar Idea and Make It Familiar 

Because ideas are, by their nature, novel, people aren't sure how to react to them at first—and thus have a bias toward rejecting them. On average, it takes 10 to 20 exposures to an idea before it will be accepted, Grant said. "We have to teach people to connect that idea in ways that innovate."

One way to do that is to "build a bridge to something that has worked elsewhere—in a different organization, a different industry and in a different country." This is sometimes referred to as the "Uber for X" approach to selling an idea.

For example, when the founders of eyeglass company Warby Parker couldn't find anyone to fund their concept of selling eyewear online, they changed their pitch. Once they told investors that they would do for glasses what Zappos did for shoes, the money poured in.

Embrace Grumpy Givers 

There are generally two kinds of people in organizations (and life), Grant said: givers, who are excited to help and want to contribute, and takers, who are mainly concerned with what others can do for them. Takers sabotage projects, refuse to mentor and steal credit.

Learning to distinguish one from the other is critical, because research indicates that takers can do real damage to the bottom line. "The negative impact of a taker on a culture is usually double to triple the cost of a giver," he said.

We often mistakenly believe that friendly people are always givers. Yet individuals' outer demeanor—that is, whether they come across as agreeable or disagreeable—actually has nothing to do with their innate generosity, Grant said. "Giving and taking are your deep-down motives," Grant said, "whereas [whether you are] agreeable or disagreeable is just your surface veneer."

That's important to understand, because the people who Grant describes as "disagreeable givers" tend to be the best change agents. These are individuals who are skeptical and challenging, but ultimately committed to others.

"It's the disagreeable givers … who are most willing to challenge the status quo," Grant said. "If you can bring an idea to them, they will be excited to tear it apart in the service of making it better. I think these are the most undervalued people in our organizations because of that."

Try Entry Interviews 

"I think it's time to put an end to exit interviews," Grant said. "Why are you waiting until people walk out the door to find out what would keep them?"

To get a fresh perspective, he suggests talking to employees shortly after they start at your company. Ask them what they like about the organization, what they hope to learn, what's broken in your interview process and how to make it better. "They haven't drunk the organizational Kool-Aid yet," Grant said.

The overarching message is that HR is in a key position to spark change. "I think we all have our [creative] ideas, and what we all need is just one person in HR to champion them."



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