The best business leaders are more than just smart and confident. They’re truly original thinkers. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk didn’t just have really cool ideas. They approached the business of running a company and building a brand differently than most, unafraid to color outside the lines and shake up traditional ways of thinking.
Business consultant Adam Grant says there are things anyone can do to turn themselves into original thinkers like these icons. Grant, consistently rated one of the Wharton School of Business’s top professors, has been included in Fortune’s 40 Under 40 and is counted among the World’s 25 Most Influential Management Thinkers. During his keynote speech for SXSW 2017, he outlined six traits common to these original thinkers. Click through to see his insights.
This may seem counterintuitive. After all, many of these original thinkers we admire so much seemed to take big gambles on products or ideas most of us would think of as extremely risky. The most iconic Silicon Valley story is that of the entrepreneur who dropped out of school or quit a job to start a company in a garage somewhere. But Grant says most of these brave men and women hate the idea of failing just as much as the rest of us. They keep their day jobs while they invest in their dreams. It’s like having a stock portfolio that has a good balance of risk and security. In fact, Grant says that in a study of entrepreneurs, those who keep their day jobs are 33 percent less likely to fail than those who go all in.
Grant points out that we all have ideas for how to improve the world. Where most people get stuck isn’t a lack of creative ideas, but the knowledge of where to go with that creative insight. The first place it all breaks down is figuring out which ideas to pursue.
When you’re trying to figure out which ideas to act on, whether creating a new venture or trying to refine a business you’re already running, you should rethink your strategy for “gatekeeping” innovation. Those who come up with the ideas are often too close to judge accurately—they’ll think their ideas are far superior to what they actually are. Conversely, managers and other traditional gatekeepers usually rank unconventional ideas far below what they’re actually worth. They rely on their years of experience to inform an intuition about what they think has merit, but the problem is that intuition is just “subconscious pattern recognition,” says Grant. They can’t bring fresh eyes to the process.
When it comes to deciding which ideas deserve action, it turns out that a group of peers is the best yardstick. They’re able to stay objective about someone else’s idea (not ranking it too high) while bringing the fresh perspective needed to recognize potential (not ranking it too low). Take leaders and managers out of the gatekeeping role, says Grant, and look to make it more of a peer decision.
Studies show that it usually takes between 10 and 20 exposures to a radically different idea before someone can truly appreciate it, so don’t get discouraged if your fabulous new product pitch is shot down the first (or fifteenth) time you present it. Instead, try to come up with different “bridges” you can build between your idea and something already well known.
The original pitch for The Lion King, for example, was “Bambi in Africa with lions.” No wonder it failed! Eventually, the creators landed on “Hamlet with lions.” When they made that connection, producers had a storyline and character types they could identify with and embrace. Similarly, Warby Parker’s business model seemed bizarre and unsustainable until they landed on “Netflix for glasses.” Suddenly, potential investors could visualize how it all would work, and they already had a wildly successful use case to serve as a model.
A word of warning: use this approach strategically. How many new services are launched every month that are the next “Uber for insert-industry-here”? Don’t draw a correlation just because. Make sure it’s something that truly illustrates your idea.
When Rufus Griscom first started pitching investors on his idea for an online magazine targeting young, urban parents, he included an unconventional slide right at the top of his deck: “Three reasons not to invest in Babble.” Five years later, when Disney expressed interest in acquiring the site, he pulled a similar trick and told the potential buyers “Five reasons not to buy Babble.” Disney bought Babble for $40 million.
Grant says Griscom’s success was based on something economists call the “availability heuristic.” Essentially, Griscom addressed the big concerns himself so investors would have to work harder to come up with their own reasons not to buy in to his idea. It’s similar to the golden rule of debate clubs in high schools worldwide: always address the counterarguments.
Consequently, Grant says it also works in job interviews. Applicants who answer the question “What are your biggest weaknesses?” honestly are 30 percent more likely to get the job than those who offer answers like “I work too hard” or “I care too much.”
Grant says there are three basic approaches to staffing your company. You can hire for the skills you need right then, hire applicants you think are “stars” who can learn quickly and seem ripe for success, or hire based on who would be a good culture fit. Those who hire for culture fit, he says, are dramatically less likely to fail. In fact, in one study of over 200 startups, those that hired for culture fit had a zero percent failure rate and a much higher likelihood of making it to IPO. It turns out that staffing a small company with people who believe in your mission makes it more likely you’ll wind up with dedicated, internally motivated employees.
But lest you think the matter is settled there, consider this: after going public, companies that staff based on culture fit grow much more slowly. It turns out that in order to scale, businesses need diversity of thought within an organization, otherwise it just becomes an echo chamber. Thinking you’ll start out hiring on culture and then switch to skills once you IPO? Think again. Organizations that switch in the middle also have a higher failure rate.
The solution, says Grant, is to hire not on cultural fit, but on cultural contribution. That is, take a hard look at where the gaps are in your company’s culture and what you need to enrich it. The design firm IDEO, for instance, started out as a company full of great designers. But when jobs started coming their way that required them to think outside of the experience they all already had, they were stymied. So they began hiring anthropologists who could help the designers understand the cultural nuances they were lacking. But then they found they were having problems selling the ideas to clients. They decided they needed great storytellers, so they began hiring journalists and screenwriters. Identify your weaknesses as an organizational culture and then figure out who to hire in order to fill that gap.
There’s a saying in business, says Grant, that’s so popular that almost everyone can fill in the blanks: Don’t bring me a _____. Bring me a _____. It makes sense. After all, managers don’t want just an endless string of complaints without any actionable steps to address them. But the issue with demanding a solution to every problem is that you never hear about the big problems, the ones that people need help solving. That mindset also promotes a culture of advocacy over inquiry, says Grant, in which people wait to bring up a problem until they can push their own solution, whether or not it’s the right one.
Grant says one of the most beneficial (as well as just plain fun) exercises an executive can conduct is “Kill the Company.” Bring employees together and ask, if they were the competition, how would they put you out of business? What comes out of such conversations are by and large either legitimate competitive threats or opportunities. People, Grant says, are usually far more creative when on offense than on defense, and you’d be surprised at the insights you’ll get by creating a safe space for employees to surface problems and think creatively.
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