What does it take to question the status quo and produce something original?
That’s the question that author Adam Grant poses in his 2016 book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. The answer he reaches might surprise you.
Grant takes us on a journey through recent history, into the psychology lab, and behind the doors of inventors and investors to get at the core of how originality happens. Along the way, he dispells several myths that even he once held true.
Some key points from the book I think you might appreciate include how original work happens in the first place, and how as leaders we can establish an environment that encourages originality from all of us.
Is it Quality or Quantity? Yes.
One of the things Grant does early on in the book is to point out that everything the most creative minds produce is not automatically great.
In fact, most of it isn’t.
Instead, what those creators are doing is playing a numbers game. The more they produce, the greater the odds that they’ll come up with something original.
Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Picasso produced 1,800 paintings and 1,200 sculptures. Maya Angelou wrote six autobiographies. Thomas Edison filed 1,093 patents.
Yet of all this output, each of these famous minds is really known for just a few of their accomplishments. And it was during their time of greatest productivity that they came up with their best, most original work.
So one way to be more original is simply to create more of whatever you do – you’ll get better at it, and some of it may be truely outstanding.
Of Monkeys and Titles
In a more recent and modern application, consider how the company Upworthy develops titles for videos it wants to go viral.
One recent video they wanted to promote shows two monkeys being paid in food to do a simple task. One monkey gets cucumber, which is fine, until he sees that the other monkey is getting paid in the much more delicious grapes. The first monkey’s reaction to the inequity is priceless.
The original title for the video was, “Remember Planet of the Apes? It’s Closer to Reality Than You Think.” Over 8,000 people watched it.
Then they tried a different title, “2 Monkeys Were Paid Unequally; See What Happens Next.” This title attracted hundres of thousands of views.
Upworthy’s rule is that you have to generate at least 25 possible headlines before you are likely to find one that is really good.
Our first ideas tend to be the most conventional and unremarkable. It’s only when we become desperate in our search for those next ones that our minds stretch enough to produce something original and good.
The Asch Paradigm
Grant explores lots of other ways to develop originality in our thinking that are very well worth the read. Then later in the book he explores why, even if we have a good idea, sometimes it never comes to light. One of the reasons is the influence that others have on our thinking.
In a revealing study, psychologist Solomon Asch asked people to judge the length of a printed line on a card and compare it with three others on a different card.
One of the three lines was the same, the others were clearly longer or shorter. The task was to select the line that matched the original one.
When working alone, people were nearly 100% accurate in their choices, no great revelation there. What was surprising was what happened when more people were introduced into the selection process.
Researchers added seven confederates to the group, and asked each member to state which line was the correct answer. Seating was arranged so that the confederates would always speak first. One after another, they were unanimous in pointing out a specific, incorrect line as the right answer.
The unwitting study participant always went last, and the results were amazing: They often and knowingly went along with the incorrect choice.
Their error rate rose from nearly zero to 37%. Three quarters of the participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of 12 trials. Only 25% of the participants consistently stuck to their guns regardless of what the others said.
The impact is clear. Unity of opinion in a group, even if obviously wrong, can have a tremendous impact on our willingness to be different, to be original.
Inciting the Rebel
What’s the antidote? Adding a “true partner.”
The presence of even just one other person who is willing to go against the majority was sufficient to dramatically lower the error rate from 37% to only 5.5%.
As Grant concludes, “merely knowing that you are not the only resister makes it substantially easier to reject the crowd.”
I’d add that the moment you find yourself looking for originality on your team but see only uniform agreement, consider Mark Twain’s comment:
Or better, from Colin Powell’s book It Worked for Me:
If you want to boost creativity and originality on your team, you have to cultivate an environment where not only is it OK to disagree, it’s expected. That’s when you begin to harness the brainpower of your best people.
Originals – The Takeaway
Adam Grant’s Originals is full of revealing studies like these. The broad array of stories, experiments, and real-life examples makes the reading captivating even as he translates how principles discovered during research apply in the real world.
Grant even opens the book with a story about how he had an opportunity to get on the ground floor of an original idea that ultimately made its founders millions. But because he evaluated the idea and its backers the same way most of us do, he declined to get involved.
Perhaps by reading this book and absorbing the lessons that Grant offers, we can learn to be more original ourselves, encourage creativity on our teams, or at least recognize it when we see it.