In 2009, one of Adam Grant’s students pitched him the idea for the company that he was creating with three other Wharton students to revolutionize the eyewear market by selling eyeglasses online at unprecedentedly low prices. Grant declined to invest. The company was Warby Parker, which today is valued at over $1 billion. To understand how he could have so misjudged its value, Grant felt driven to study the process of generating and evaluating original, disruptive ideas. In his latest book, he reveals that much of the established thinking around originality and creativity is simply untrue. In his words, “Originality itself 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.”
UNLEASHING YOUR ORIGINALITY
“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”
Generating (lots of) original ideas
Originality almost always starts with curiosity about “the dissatisfying defaults in our world,” writes Grant. To spark such curiosity in yourself, start by reflecting on the fact that the status quo is based on rules and systems created by people. Nothing is inevitable or immutable: there’s always room for improvement. And the next step? Coming up with a huge number of ideas. Grant cites the research of psychologist and creative productivity expert Dean Simonton on the correlation between quantity and quality of output: “It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality — if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it — but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.” In studying highly creative individuals, Simonton found that the defining trait that distinguished them from their peers was not talent or education but rather greater volume of output. What’s more, Simonton found that productivity itself seems to unleash originality: “The most prolifi c people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume.”
Identifying the most valuable original ideas
But generating ideas is not necessarily the hardest part. “In one analysis, when over 200 people dreamed up more than 1,000 ideas for new ventures and products, 87% were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They’re constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas,” reports Grant. Who is the best positioned to select the best ideas? Not managers or executives, whose roles create a tendency towards risk aversion and false negatives. It turns out that other creators –colleagues who also generate their own ideas in related domains – are the best evaluators of the value of original ideas. Grant thus tells leaders to think like creators rather than bosses! He cites a study2 in which managers who were asked to spend an initial six minutes generating their own ideas were then able to identify the most valuable original ideas proposed by others 77% of the time; in comparison, managers who were asked to spend their first six minutes defining evaluation criteria had significantly lower success rate of 51%.