Adam Grant is not your typical business school professor. Just 34, he reached tenure while still in his 20s and finished his PhD in less than three years. He writes op-eds with Facebook COO 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).
Along the way, he grounds the book in his trademark, evidence-based approach -- seemingly every page introduces another study from a social scientist -- without weighing it down. 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. I have yet to meet a leader who does not find it frustrating that it’s so hard to get people to share their most unconventional ideas and speak up with important suggestions. 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?
It's like the sequel to creativity. 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 counter-intuitive 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. That was a big surprise as well.
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's 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. That's because when you look for a strong culture, you're trying to bring in people who share something in common. So that means they buy into the same same set of values, and they tend to approach problems in similar ways. They come from experiences that are probably pretty similar to each other, and that crowds out diversity of thought.
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. When you hire on cultural fit, you tend to hire a bunch of people who think, talk, look and act just like you do.
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. Let's figure out what's missing in the culture and hire based on that. That goes way beyond selection. 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.
I always cringe when I hear that term, "cultural fit." It just seems like a nice way of saying that you crowd out diversity.
Cultural fit is the most popular hiring model that I see in organizations today. I cringe at it, too. But there are a lot of leaders who are either completely unaware of the downsides or have thought a little bit about them but think they're outweighed by the upsides.
Part of what I thought got so many people interested in your last book is you practiced what you preached, and are known as a person who gives a lot of his time and expertise. So, are you an "original"?
I don’t think it’s my place to judge. My hope is that I have advanced ideas that are original. Some of that has been discovering insights in my own work, some of that has been championing really brilliant work that other people have done that has not seen the light of day.
The personal part of this book for me is that I started out as a conformist. What I did in the classroom was I taught other people’s ideas. I spent years teaching entire semester-long classes on organizational behavior and not saying a word about givers, takers and matchers because I was afraid that people were going to think I was crazy.
[After writing "Give and Take"], I had a lot of audiences who just believed givers couldn’t succeed, so I was having to go pretty strongly against that grain. When I worked with investment banks in particular -- but also a lot of Silicon Valley -- people were like 'no, the takers are the people who are very successful around here.' ... I guess I learned a lot through that process, about how to champion ideas more or less effectively. A lot of the insights I picked up are revealed [in the new book] through other people’s studies.