Adam Grant, you’ve written a best-selling book – “Originals” – on how to generate good ideas. Can you let us into the secret of how you came up with this idea?
Well, to be quite honest, it all started with a really bad idea on my part. One of my students asked me if I’d be interested in investing in a start-up that he was planning to set up with a few of his fellow students. I took a look at the proposal and said thanks, but no thanks.
What was the start-up all about?
They wanted to sell glasses online. I thought it was bound to fail. If you’re trying to sell glasses, you have to test your customers’ eyes – how’s that supposed to work online? And what’s more, the team didn’t even seem to be fully invested in their project. Instead of focusing exclusively on their start-up plans during the summer break, three of the four students decided to take internships. It took them six months to decide on a name for their company. Here were these students just messing around, to put it mildly. Despite this, their company – it’s called Warby Parker – was an unbelievable success. Today the company is valued at over a billion dollars.
So you learned something from this misjudgment?
When you miss out on an opportunity like that, you start second-guessing yourself and asking, “Where on earth did I go wrong?” So that’s how the book came about. I wanted to find better ways of recognizing good ideas. And how people not only manage to come up with novel ideas but to act on them as well.
We should all trust ourselves to think in a slightly more non-conformist way.
In your book, you call these people “non-conformists.” Do you have to rock the boat to be successful?
“Disruption” is a buzzword right now. If you study disruptive ideas, you’re soon struck by the fact that many of them start off with an act of non-conformity. With someone who says, “The way we’ve been solving problem X or Y up to now is completely wrong.” And who then takes a different path – irrespective of all the obstacles. And non-conformists always have plenty of obstacles to deal with.
Because they stand out from the crowd?
Non-conformists are admired, even idolized, as soon as they achieve success. Look at Steve Jobs, for instance. Nobody loved Steve Jobs in 1970. As long as non-conformists are still in the process of developing and trying out their ideas, they’re often seen as irritating. Studies have shown that those who do regularly voice their opinions are less likely to be promoted than their co-workers. So for non-conformists who don’t keep their mouths shut, there’s always a price to pay.
Born in 1981 in Michigan, Adam Grant is Professor of Organizational Psychology at the Wharton Business School in Philadelphia. He is a consultant to organizations and companies. Every one of his books has made the “New York Times” bestseller lists. His titles include “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” and “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.” Grant’s most recent book is “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” co-written with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg.
So how do I become a non-conformist ideas machine?
In a lot of cases, originality starts with something someone sees that they’re already familiar with but which they suddenly see with fresh eyes. So it’s the opposite of déjà vu – what we call vuja de. Take the example of lining up for a taxi. How often had Travis Kalanick been forced to wait in line for a taxi while hordes of cars drove past him, devoid of passengers? Hundreds of times. But at some point he asked himself, “Why can’t I just ride along with them?”
And then he proceeded to found Uber.
Precisely! The thing is we’ve all had plenty of these vuja de experiences. But unlike Travis, we don’t have the courage to make something of them.
Successful non-conformists have the same fears and doubts as the rest of us. The difference is that they act on their beliefs in spite of all this. Because they would regret it more if they failed to try than if they tried and failed.
Apart from its content, what else is important about an idea?
When it comes to good ideas, procrastinating and dawdling can be a really good thing. We proved this in a series of experiments. For example, we gave one group a creative task and asked them to solve it immediately. Another group was given the same task but was allowed to play Minesweeper for a few minutes before starting on the solution. The ones who played Minesweeper first produced significantly better results.
But all of this surely can’t apply to the sort of procrastinator who really waits till the last minute before starting work, can it?
No, you’re right. Because then you’re simply in survival mode and can’t possibly have your best ideas. The trick is to be quick to start but slow to finish. That way, you leave the door open for new ideas as long as possible – without falling behind. Warby Parker took so long to find a name because they did exactly that. They collected and rejected one idea after another until they had found the right one.
Isn’t it much better to come up with a good idea quickly than to keep digging and digging before finally choosing one out of hundreds?
Absolutely not! The best way to come up with an original idea is to generate as large a volume of options as possible. Most people stop brainstorming after an hour and are happy to have collected 20 ideas. But it takes about 200 ideas before you reach the limits of your originality. You need as big a haystack as possible if you want to find good needles in it. When too many people who are similar work on a project for too long, the diversity of ideas suffers. That’s not a good idea.
You need as big a haystack as possible if you want to find good needles in it.