Adam Grant on “Six secrets to true originality”


Here is a brief excerpt from an article in which Rik Kirkland interviews Adam Grant for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. Grant shares six tips on generating great ideas, including reframing your creative process, not worrying about being too old, and learning how to procrastinate artfully.

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Some of the most original people in history achieved their level of fame or legend because they wouldn’t stop coming up with ideas. Sometimes — like in the case of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who procrastinated for months before beginning work on his famous Fallingwater — they know when to procrastinate to give themselves time to develop and refine their ideas. In this interview with McKinsey’s Rik Kirkland, Adam Grant, professor of management and of psychology at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin Books: March 2014) and his latest, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Viking: February 2016) discusses six practical secrets to being more original. An edited and extended version of his comments follows.

[Here are the first two of six “practical secrets.”]

1. Have lots of ideas, not just a few big ones

I always thought that the great originals in history—creative musicians, artists, scientists, and more recently, business thinkers and leaders—I thought what they did was they had a couple of big ideas and then they refined them to perfection.

But the data tell the opposite story: that the great originals throughout history did not have few ideas, they had tons of them, and way more than most of their peers. If you look at musicians, for example—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven—their average hit rate is not any higher than many composers you have never heard of.

What differentiates them is that they came up with a lot more ideas. So 600, or more than 1,000 in a couple of those cases. The reason for that is you have to generate a lot of variety to be original. If you just come up with a few ideas, your first few are usually the most obvious. You have to rule out the familiar in order to get to the novel. But most people never do that. They fall in love with their first idea, or they end up questioning whether they have the ability to come up with more ideas.

So one of the things leaders need to be doing more often is encouraging people to generate lots and lots of ideas, knowing that you’re going to spew out a lot of garbage in order to get greatness.

2. Judge ideas in a creative mind-set

Most people are overconfident in their own ideas because they created them, and it’s very easy to sell yourself on the pros of an idea and lose sight of the cons. People then say to themselves, “You need some distance. Let me go to managers.” But the data suggest managers aren’t great judges, either, for the opposite reason. Just as you’re too positive, managers tend to be too negative. What they do is they take new ideas and they compare them to existing prototypes. Harry Potter was rejected by publishers because it was too long. “Who would read a children’s book that was hundreds and hundreds of pages?” they thought. But that’s not the right way to evaluate an original idea.

There’s an amazing study by Justin Berg, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor. He looks at circus performances—think Cirque du Soleil—and collects all these original acts done by different kinds of circus artists: jugglers, dancers, acrobats. He asks people to evaluate their own performances, and then he asks managers to evaluate them as well, and then he has performers judge each other’s videos.

Finally, he looks at how well the videos do with the audience, and who the best forecaster is of which original ideas will succeed. Sure enough, people are horrible at judging their own performances, and the managers tend to be way too closed to the most novel acts. The best forecasters are the performers judging each other’s performances. They have the distance that we don’t have from our own ideas, but, unlike managers, they also tend to be open to novel possibilities because they’re in a creative mind-set.

What we need to do to become better at judging ideas is to teach ourselves to think more like creators. The way that Berg does this is that he has people generate a few ideas of their own right before they evaluate somebody else’s ideas. Being in that mind-set of generating new possibilities and thinking creatively increases your openness to novel performances. You’re much more likely to say, “You know, I’ve never seen anyone do somersaults over fire before, but that’s interesting.” You’re much more likely, then, to bet on great, original ideas.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Rik Kirkland is the senior managing editor of McKinsey Publishing, based in McKinsey’s New York office.

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