Learning How to be Original

Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

It turns out you can learn how to develop, disseminate, convince people of, and get them to help execute your own brilliant ideas. That is, originality is not an innate trait of revolutionary leaders, but a process you can integrate into your life. Adam Grant writes about how originality is formulaic and how to navigate that formula in work and at home. Regardless of your industry or endeavor you’ll be able to pull value from this distillation of his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World.

Having an idea

It’s simple. The only step towards having a brilliant idea is having lots of ideas. We know Mozart by an iconic handful of pieces but he produced over 600 unique works. Picasso is known for several famous paintings that were actually a small percentage of the 50,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and tapestries he produced. By the time Bill Gates left Harvard he’d written more code than most graduates and certainly more than his immediate classmates. Here’s the lesson: It’s not quality over quantity, it’s quality from quantity.

Evaluating an idea

Getting feedback on your idea quickly is critical because you’re not the only person in your space that has thought of it. You’re in a race with someone somewhere to develop that idea into a result . Now, you can’t evaluate your own ideas successfully because your imagination and expertise are now working against you, serving as blinders that keep you from being completely in tune with reality. Your best bet is someone like you who knows your role but isn’t emotionally invested in your amazing idea. Your colleagues are a good bet. They won’t treat your idea like the treasure it is to you and they have vested interest in seeing good ideas adopted at your organization. You’ve also worked with them enough or understand them well enough that less of their commentary will be lost in translation.

  • Note however, that critical acceptance is not wide-acceptance. Amazing technical and artistic achievements that provide little utility and fade into the ether are so common that they’re almost a cliche. If your aim is to find wide-acceptance then repeat the above steps with a wide audience. Social media gives you instant access to audiences you can mine for feedback.
  • Other excellent sources of feedback are your enemies, but going about getting it is difficult. In play, your friends will work to execute your idea, your frenemies will be unpredictable and a source of stress, but your enemies will attempt to exploit weaknesses. If you survive the attempt, address those weaknesses.
  • On the flip side, when evaluating others’ ideas make sure to look for passion in execution. Ideas are easy, work is not. If you find someone willing to put in the work to make a mediocre idea come to life they’re a safer bet than a brilliant idea executed by a lackadaisical patron.
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Speaking about your idea

You’ve thought it up, worked hard to find feedback, iterated your designs. You know your plan backwards and forwards. No one else does. Remember this when you begin to tell people about it. Forget it and you’ll almost certainly under-communicate your idea and doom it to a poor reception. Your boss doesn’t know the countless little solutions you’ve had to develop to arrive at this point. If you skip over them in your presentation they’ll assume you didn’t solve them. They don’t know anything so plan accordingly when preparing to present. If you need to break it up, break it up into whole pieces.

  • A big influence in adoption of new ideas is simple exposure. People are weary of new things, so make it an old thing. Try slow-rolling the release. Time between introduction and evaluation is good for digestion.
  • Don’t be a salesman. Try leading with the negatives of your plan instead of touting its greatness. Immediately, you’ll shift the audience into problem solving mode and ease their fear of being conned. Recognize that you yourself would be suspicious of something that sounds too good to be true.
  • It’s standard operating procedure to make people understand the ‘why’ of your argument, unless the argument is too new. Original ideas are offensive to peoples’ experience, expertise, knowledge, common sense, even their sense of self. They challenge what’s possible and that’s scary. If your plan is this extreme then it might be beneficial to get people to buy into the smaller benefits of your idea while withholding it’s true purpose. Go about making it happen but don’t try to explain it.
  • Wrap your new idea in familiar packaging. The Lion King was almost axed by Disney because a story about singing lions with Swahili names wouldn’t resonate with western audiences. The outlook was grim until an executive noted that it was Hamlet with lions. It was Hamlet — the template story of a son’s banishment and return to glory. Here’s one more. Given a rollerblading skate and the scenario of an interview, participants were asked to invent something new. One person imagined a device that would use the skate’s wheels like clocks so that the interviewee could tell the passage of time without risking the rude gesture of looking at a watch. The skate was then taken away and the participant given an object relevant to the hypothetical situation, a pen. Asked to refine their idea they thought of a pen with 6 small pegs that sunk one at a time every 10 minutes. The interviewee would be able to tell approximately how much time had passed by the sense of touch. Not a revolutionary product but pretty good for a 10 minute incubation period and no resources. New ideas, familiar packaging.

Creating a receptive environment to your idea

Bridgewater Capital has a unique culture that allows ideas to rise through a meritocracy. Their system of cooperation and vetting has many novel aspects, one of which is the unearthing of devil’s advocates. Many organizations appoint someone to the position for the sake of getting the other side of the argument. The problem is that participants won’t find those arguments compelling. The exercise devolves into a test of rhetorical skill at best and a performance at worst because no one believes in those solutions. Bridgewater unearths real advocates of the opposition within it’s ranks. This adds a sincerity to arguments that can’t be ignored and makes the devil’s advocate more potent.

NASA also has a unique culture with unique protocols. One is the motto that employees should “not bring solutions, but bring problems” to superiors. After the Challenger disaster NASA decided that expecting individuals to solve problems alone in the short and unpredictable time between discovery and disaster was counter-productive to establishing high safety standards. Under new policy, someone could ID a problem, bring it to light without any solution, and work on the team that would attempt to solve it.

  • The half-time pep talk works because the team is most receptive to beneficial changes when they’ve already spent some time with the problem. New managers often want to implement immediate changes, but studies show that good managers wait to see what needs changing and what needs ignoring. Take your time and prepare for the half-time changes.
  • Punishment and reward is as basic as it gets when building new behaviors so it’s worth doing well. Watch which verbs and nouns you use when commending or condemning. Saying ‘don’t cheat’ is less effective than ‘don’t be a cheater’ because easier to rationalize away a one time incident than an absolute identity.
  • Cohesion and role security are important to building a receptive culture. No one will speak out if it means they’ll be sent to the block. If they feel secure in their role and secure in their status within the organization they’ll be more likely to venture into new waters.
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Getting people to help execute your idea

The go-system that compels people to act is activated in one of two ways depending on the conditions at hand. If people are undecided about what to do it’s best to frame your argument in terms of loss and gain. If they are set on a path and are anxious it’s best to pivot that emotion into more positive feelings while helping them acknowledge potential weaknesses.

In the former case, you have to highlight the risk of inaction and accentuate the benefits of your plan. Make the status quo a certain loss. People are prone to protecting themselves against loss, but are risk averse even if it means gaining something. Merc executives, in an attempt to drive greater innovation, were asked to develop a few business plans and products that, in the hands of competitors, would harm their business. Then they were asked to develop defense against these. Now, failing to invest in these defenses was seen as a certain, eventual loss.

If your team is set on a direction but is anxious, it’s best not to ask them to remain calm. It is much easier to convert one emotion to another than it is to hit the breaks on emotion altogether. Remind them of what there is to gain, what they stand to lose if they don’t act. Remind them that their anxiety is normal and use it to verify all your bases are covered. At this stage, a paranoid team is an asset. Then, as an exercise in beneficial self-deception, convince them that they are as excited as they are anxious. This is what it’s supposed to feel like. Don’t fight it.

Once your team is ready to go you need to establish urgency. This is best done by highlighting the gap between what is and what could be, while noting small wins that show how far you’ve already come.

Last, don’t take too many risks at once. Most successful entrepreneurs don’t decide to risk it all. Gates took official leave from Harvard, he didn’t drop out. The founders of Warby Parker started the company while in graduate school over the course of nearly 2 years with a lot of feedback from professors and friends, and they had full time jobs lined up for after graduation. It’s risky to pursue new ideas. You should be trying to minimize that risk.


Originally published at alexkhantreras.github.io.

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