Adam Grant's Originals is Both Original and Right
But Are The Bits That Are Original The Bits That Are Right?
Originals has been heralded among business thinkers for its wide range of practical calls to action and counter-intuitive insights about ‘how non-conformists move the world’. And yet, after consideration, we found ourselves wondering what was original and what we had heard before and whether Grant’s reasoning was always quite right.
Here, we consider three of the book’s main insights and provide a perspective on each.
THESIS NO.1. FIRST MOVER ADVANTAGE IS NO ADVANTAGE AT ALL.
Arguing against the grain, Grant claims that it is better to take a wait and see approach to nascent markets. His rationale is that it is better to let others take the risks, better to learn from other people’s mistakes, and better to let first-movers grow the market before you enter to take a share of a bigger pie. Now while it is clearly true that first movers don’t always end up dominating a market, and while it is clearly true that first movers often make mistakes, that is surely not an argument for waiting. It is an argument for getting it right the first time. If first-movers get their products and market entry strategies right, backed by strong follow-up execution, then we wholly advocate moving first into nascent markets. Grant’s position sounds to us too similar to excuses made too often by corporates who are simply risk-averse. That is not an approach that leads to genuine game-changing innovation.
We give this: often right historically, but not proscriptively. Or, right but for the wrong reasons.
THESIS NO.2. STRATEGIC PROCRASTINATION IS ESSENTIAL TO BEING CREATIVE
Again, Grant takes a position that, at least on the surface of it, is against the grain. He argues that we should procrastinate. In other words, we should put off the production of creative output, work on other things, finally coming back to the problem previously at hand in order to be original. But this is only counter-intuitive if you equivocate between Grant’s sense of ‘strategic procrastination’ and the normal sense of ‘procrastination’. True procrastination would simply involve starting your task unnecessarily late. If Grant were advocating that and correctly advocating for people to procrastinate in the normal sense, then that would be an eye-opening thesis. But if one rephrases Grant’s thesis in other terms, say, as the injunction to mull problems over, then it has more of an air of truism to it. We believe that you greatly increase your chances of solving difficult problems by maximising the thinking time you put in, even and especially if you are not always actively working on a particular problem. As we all know, solutions often appear when one didn’t even realize that one was still thinking about a problem. In other words, leave yourself time to mull problems over but don’t procrastinate.
We give this: a right but not terribly original.
THESIS NO.3. QUALITY IS NOT PREFERABLE TO QUANTITY, QUANTITY ACTUALLY LEADS TO QUALITY
Grant claims that truly original ideas emerge as a result of the sheer quantity of ideas produced by ‘original’ thinkers. This struck a chord with us. There are the proverbial hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs have one very good idea and apply it to everything. Foxes have lots of different ideas, none universal in application. Without taking sides on who is wiser or righter, the fox as a strategy for creative thinking is surely the better one. Hedgehog types have a tendency to tenaciously hold on and argue for just one idea, but we all know that not all of our ideas are good and the first ones to pop into our minds are not likely to be the most original. Our view is that it is only once ‘easy-win’ ideas are filtered out during early phase ideation that people are forced to think more laterally, and that increases the likelihood of them finding answers in unexpected places. Our experience shows us that this is the best way to uncover truly original ideas. So, yes, quantity actually leads to quality. Best of all, all of your mediocre ideas will go unnoticed by onlookers and critics, hidden from view by the single ground-breaking 101st idea that grabs people’s attention.
We give this: a right on.