What and who are original thinkers?
You likely jumped to “overnight successes” or people who create a product that everyone wants to use. From the paper press to the electric light bulb to modern plumbing to the smartphone to Facebook—each of these inventions changed the foundation and fundamentals of our lives. And someone came up with the original idea. Or so the story goes. One thing is for certain: they are original thinkers.
So, when I tell you that the Harvard Crimson wrote a story in 2003 about a student creating a social network (though of course they didn’t call it that yet) to help his peers connect and share ideas with each other, who would you think about? It’s not who you think.
That 2003 article was written about Adam Grant. His dorm neighbor next door? None other than Mark Zuckerberg. Yeah, he came to fame a little bit later. So how do two people within the same geographic space begin to create the same product and yet one goes on to become a manager at a marketing firm and the other becomes a household name, multi-billionaire, social activist, and humanitarian?
Original thinkers. They’re not just the one who comes up with the idea; they’re the ones who aren’t afraid to take the leap. They’re the ones who jump off the edge.
“Next time you're afraid to share an idea, remember someone once said in a meeting, 'let's make a film with a tornado full of sharks,'" — Adam Grant
Taking the leap
If your friends all jumped off of a bridge, would you? Fortunately for the majority of us, none of our friends jump off bridges. Unfortunately for us, that makes us sheep who stay put and do what everyone else is doing. We’re afraid to jump, to act upon our original ideas.
We don’t have a creativity problem; we have a culture problem. We have a problem with taking the next step.
Grant may not have founded Facebook, but he’s now Wharton’s top-rated professor, a writer on work and psychology for The New York Times, and author of Originals: How Nonconformists Rule the World. He studies the people who go and do in the world. He has learned how we can all be more like those original thinkers we so admire. And in doing so, he has also become one of them.
Step 1: Become a risk assessor, not a risk taker
Contrary to popular opinion, most of the original thinkers aren’t risk takers; they are risk assessors. Original thinkers aren’t that much different than the rest of us. They don’t want to fail, they don’t want to be broke, but they know they must act on their idea. They choose to take the next step. That’s what makes them different.
Many people whom we think of as originals actually took the time to assess the risk and only acted when the odds were in their favor. Many of today’s successful original thinkers started their products and businesses as side gigs. Instead of going for broke, they started out slowly. Just check out the origin story of these greats:
- Spanx — Sara Blakely was getting ready for a party, but didn’t have the right undergarments to wear under her white pants. So she cut the legs off of a pair of shaping tights. The idea for Spanx was born.
- Nike — Two men got together, one a runner with an MBA, the other a track coach wanting to improve running performance through better shoes. The rest is history.
- Google — What started as a clash of differing opinions over urban planning ended in a company that has changed the way we research and access information forever./li>
- Minecraft — The founder of Minecraft was inspired by a passion for online gaming and building a new world online—LEGOs for the digital world.
- Ebay — A simple desire to connect online buyers and sellers in a safe, honest marketplace motivated this founder to created the tech giant we know today.
In Originals, Grant cites a 14-year study of entrepreneurs, in which researchers sought to understand if participants fared better by keeping or leaving their day jobs. Should the side hustle stay on the side, or quickly become the only thing? The researchers found the former—those that kept working their day job were 33 percent less likely to fail. Instead of investing everything, they took a baby step towards the dream.
To encourage a workplace culture of original thinking, you first need to teach employees to become risk assessors. When they think of a new idea, instead of dismissing it outright, help them assess the risk. How can that idea be implemented while also minimizing the risks? That’s how you want employees to think.
Step 2: Avoid positive bias
One of the many problems faced by original thinkers is identifying whether or not their idea is a good one. As the thinker of the thought, you’re too close to it to objectively identify whether or not it’s a good idea. And, your immediate circle of colleagues are also too close to objectively judge the idea.
As the thinker of the thought, you are too close to it to objectively identify whether or not it's a good idea.
You have to get outside your peer group to avoid positive bias.
When you’re nurturing a workplace of original thinkers, you need to give employees a space to test their ideas and to receive feedback from those who are far enough away to lend objective judgment.
Seinfeld. That beacon of American culture and awkward interaction almost didn’t make it onto television screens. The sitcom executives hated it. The head of the network said, “I’m supposed to like the characters, but I hate them all. Why would anyone watch this?"
Luckily, someone outside of the sitcom office saved it from obscurity. This show that violated all of the sitcom norms made people laugh and went on to be one of the most influential television shows. Ever. To this day, we refer to double-dipping and sponge-worthy as if they’ve always been a part of our vernacular.
It’s easy to wonder how something so influential to our culture could have been considered a bad idea. That’s original thinking. Someone sees the potential for success, even when those who think they know better think it’s doomed for failure.
Seeking outside opinions can help original thinkers to assess the risk of failure and avoid the positive bias of their own thinking.
Step 3: Make the unfamiliar familiar
Oftentimes, the most difficult aspect to original thinking is getting people to accept a new idea. No one likes change and the unfamiliar is just uncomfortable.
Find a way to relate your original idea to an old idea. Make it seem familiar by relating it to something that already exists. Discover connections between your new idea with something that’s old.
Disney wasn’t always the movie-making success that it is today. When Disney decided to write original stories for their movies instead of basing them off of fairy tales, it was a terrible failure. Until, they based it on Hamlet. They made the unfamiliar, familiar.
What was that movie, you ask? The Lion King.
Find parallels to your original idea and it might just become more acceptable to those who have never thought it before.
Step 4: Become aware of and admit to your weaknesses
How would you react if a candidate walked into a job interview and stated their weaknesses? Or if you received a resume with a section for listing a candidate’s weaknesses?
This shocking move doesn’t only just surprise recruiters, it works. You’re 30 percent more likely to get hired when you list your weaknesses. And we’re not talking about those humblebrags such as “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” No, these are honest, thought-out weaknesses.
You’re 30 percent more likely to get hired when you list your weaknesses. And we’re not talking about those humblebrags such as “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” No, these are honest, thought-out weaknesses.
"Here’s why I'm not qualified for this job, here are my weaknesses, and here's why you should hire me."
This tactic works with pitching ideas well. Next time your employees have to present their ideas, encourage them to also present the negatives. When you lead with the flaws, others have a hard time thinking of other drawbacks.
Step 5: Create a space for open dialogue
When attempting to create a workplace culture of original thinking, one of the most important things you should cultivate is a space for open dialogue. Your employees must feel comfortable raising questions and pointing out problems.
This doesn’t mean that you want employees to complain about what’s not working, but to constructively raise problems.
Consider Warby Parker: The company keeps a running problem log. Any employee can post problems, they can also work on solving problems. This allows each employee to have a hand in the overall success of the company.
This not only encourages a culture of original thinkers, but of invested, loyal employees.
Encouraging open dialogue also helps to combat groupthink—the biggest killer of original thought. And company culture in and of itself is a form of groupthink. If everyone is the same, no one is an original thinker and no one is challenging the status quo.
Step 6: Temper passion with clarity
When you present a new idea or come up with an original thought, it’s important to guard against your passion. Passion for an idea can cloud our ability to see clearly.
Temper your passion with clarity by ranking your ideas. Once your ideas are ranked, get rid of the first one. You’re too passionate about it to see clearly.
Your second favorite idea still holds your passion, but not so much that you won’t be able to see it’s flaws. That’s the original idea you should act upon and put into place.
Step 7: Play kill the company
A great game that Grant recommends is “kill the company.”
Simply ask each other: "What are all of the ways that our competitor could destroy our company?"
This helps you to identify your weakness before your competitors do and to take steps to fix them before they can become a reality.
Only original thinkers can step outside of the box with enough foresight to play this game. Teach your employees how to step back and view their own weaknesses by being willing to step back and examine your own.
Step 8: Hire original thinkers
All in all, the best way to create a workplace culture of original thinking is to hire original thinkers. And that likely means that you need to change your hiring practices.
Before hiring for a position, assess and reassess what skills are needed for that job. As technology changes, jobs change, roles change, and the necessary skills change. Don’t rely on old data.
Look for potential. Instead of looking for the candidate with all the right training, background, and experience, look for the person with the most potential to grow into the role.
It’s not a new idea, and Grant adds a caveat to it, but you want to make sure that the people you’re hiring fit your company culture. Studies that follow startups have found that hiring for culture fit makes a company very successful. But, once the company goes public, it’s growth stagnates. Those startups grow slower after they go IPO. Why? Culture fit, also known as groupthink, is limiting them.
Culture fit is groupthink.
Combat groupthink by making original thinking a part of your company culture.