Adam Grant: How to harness the power of non-conformists

To create a business culture in which originality thrives, Adam Grant believes non-conformity should not only be tolerated, but actively nurtured. In his day 1 keynote speech, the New York Times bestselling author and globally-renowned management thinker said that non-conformists take risks, drive creativity and foster change across organizations.

“We don’t lack creative ideas – we lack the tools to enable people to speak up. If people weren’t so humble and modest that they were afraid to say they have an idea worth pursuing, more would get done.” So how do you create a culture in which originality thrives?

Grant realized that ideas tend to get heard – and acted upon – in organizations that share 5 key characteristics. “When pitching a new idea – it may seem fragile at first. We tend to try and protect them by shying away from their flaws. Original thinkers put their worst foot forwards – by identifying the limitations of your argument and pitching counter-arguments, you show honesty and at the same time limit the counter-arguments that can come your way.”

This can remove some of the friction associated with new ideas – but what if your idea is a complete departure from the normal? “Make the unfamiliar familiar. There is still merit in the “Uber of, the Netflix of…” pitch. Build a bridge between your ideas and something familiar in another domain. The more exposure you get to new cultures, activities, and industries, the more bridges you can build.”

Honesty and familiarity will give ideas weight. Transparency will ensure ideas are brought to the table in the first place. “Don’t bring me problems – bring me solutions” is a dangerous sentence. This creates a culture in which big problems may never be addressed at all, and employees solve the same problems over and over. You can overcome this by opening yourself up for critique. Say you’re not perfect, you’re still trying to grow. Your employees will feel safer raising issues.”

Taking the wider view, organizations also need to recognize – and fight – groupthink. “Challenge the status quo. Don’t run exit interviews – why would you wait until someone is leaving before finding out how they can improve the institution? Open communication channels at an early stage – ask employees in their first week how they would improve their job role, the organization, the work process.

“Another great way to inspire out of the box thinking is to kill the company. Ask your team to think how you could be put out of business. People are more creative on offense than defense, so challenging ideas are more likely to be raised.”

You might now think you have a culture in place that will give great ideas a voice. Even so, there are dangers in hiring to fit a culture. “Culture fit is correlated with successful IPOs, but when the companies go public, they grow more slowly and becomes problematic over time. This is a great proxy for groupthink. “Do I want to hang out with this person” is a trap. Diversify skillsets and backgrounds at all points.”

Question everything, listen to everyone, discard nothing. Adam Grant wants you to non-conform.


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