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Be original for a better world


In order to improve people's lives, it is important to be innovative and come up with new ideas. A new book by Adam Grant tackles this subject.

Elwyn Brooks "E.B." White once wrote: "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day."

But how do you make the world a better place? The answer seemingly lies in becoming an original person and thinker. Those who aspire to make such changes must choose to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, bucking outdated traditions.

In short, it is about standing up for new ideas. Leaders also need to interrogate groupthink.


This notion was recently highlighted at the USB Executive Development (USB-ED) and finweek's regular We Read For You (WRFY) presentation held in Cape Town.

The book presented by Professor Basil C Leonard, part-time facilitator at USB-ED and USB and Programme Manager of special projects at the City of Cape Town, was Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.

Grant asks how we can bring to life and implement new ideas, policies, and practices without risking it all. He uses studies and stories from a broad array of sectors, including business and politics, as well as sports and entertainment, to explore how to recognise a good idea.

The book provides the opportunity to learn from an entrepreneur who pitches his start-ups by highlighting the reasons not to invest, an Apple employee who challenged Steve Jobs from three levels below, an analyst who overturned the rule of secrecy at the CIA, a billionaire financial wizard who fires employees for failing to criticize him, and a TV executive saved the series Seinfeld from the cutting-room floor even though he had never worked in comedy.

Some of the interesting views in the book are:

  • There are two routes to achievement - conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo, while originality means taking the road less travelled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better. Originality starts with creativity, generating a concept that is both novel and useful.  But it doesn't stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.
  • The best way to get better at judging your ideas is to gather feedback. Put a lot of ideas out there and see which ones are praised and adopted by your audience.
    It is dangerous to have a strong conviction regarding your ideas not only because this leaves you vulnerable to believing you might have a great idea when in fact it is a dud. Such thinking also stops you from generating the requisite variety of ideas to reach your creative potential. If we want to improve your idea selection skills, you shouldn't look at whether people have been successful - you need to track how they've been successful.
  • B​eing original does not require being first. It just means being different and better.
  • Creating and maintaining coalitions: it seems that enemies make better allies than "friend enemies" or "frenemies." Negative relationships are unpleasant, but they're predictable - if a colleague consistently undermines you, you can keep your distance and expect the worst.  But when you're dealing with an ambivalent relationship, you're constantly on your guard, questioning whether that person can actually be trusted. It is best to cut our frenemies and attempt to convert our enemies.
  • The evidence on birth order highlights the importance of giving children freedom to be original. But one of the dangers of doing so is that they might use the freedom to rebel in ways that put themselves or others at risk. Here it is important for parents to discipline their children when they behave badly, but also to praise good behaviour.
  • There's a common belief that creativity flourishes when criticism is withheld, but this turns out to be false. Dissenting opinions are useful even when they're wrong. Evidence suggests that social bonds don't drive groupthink; the culprits are overconfidence and reputational concerns.
  • To counter apathy in an organisation, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. This is an important message to convey, but it's not the type of communication that should come first.  If you want people to take risks, you need to first show what's wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction and frustration with - or anger at – the current state of affairs.

Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness that comes from pursuing this goal.



Finweek is the USB-ED's media partner in its We Read For You series. The next event will be held on the 4th of August in Bellville. Dr René Nel will discuss The Glass Wall by Sue Unerman & Kathryn Jacob. To register please visit Attendance is free.





First published in finweek 22 June 2016.

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