In the video below, Motley Fool co-founder Tom Gardner interviews Adam Grant, author of Originals.
Originals is about the choice to battle conformity, buck outdated traditions, and champion ideas and values that go against the grain. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can fight groupthink to build cultures that welcome dissent.
Transcript follows below.
Tom: Thank you all for coming. Those of you who work at the Fool, those of you who don't work at the Fool who've come in and are going to spend the next hour with us, including two people in the ... The head of the fellowship group at the National Gallery is here, Judy Frank, Molly Donovan as well. It's great to have you all here with us as well.
We've got about 40 minutes, maybe a little bit less. Adam is going to the White House next. Turns out he's got to go through some security stuff and all the rest, so pretty hard stop at 11:45. Rather than the long ... I had about a 15 minute introduction of Adam going through his childhood accomplishments. Instead, I'm going to get right to the questions.
How many of you have gotten a chance to take a look at this book? Awesome. There's a good market of buyers in the room.
First question is why did you write Originals?
Adam: To be honest, Tom, I've always been a conformist. I was the kid who ... I got called to the principal's office once, and I cried. Even though I wasn't in trouble. I've always followed the rules and respected my elders, and I've become increasingly convinced that's not the best way to move the world forward, and wanted to better understand one, how can individuals champion new ideas, and two, how do leaders fight group think.
Tom: Awesome. Let's start with the bad news, your decision not to invest in Warby Parker. What was the thought process that went into that and why do you look at it and see mistakes in the process you took?
Adam: Thanks for making me relive that. Yeah, what happened was the first class I taught at Wharton, Neil Blumenthal was a student in it, and he came to me and said I'm thinking about, with three friends, starting this company to sell glasses online. I was like that's crazy. Who would ever order glasses online?
Then it turned out they didn't seem very committed. Three of the four guys did internships over the summer, instead of working on the business. They all lined up full time jobs as backup plans, just in case, and the day before the company launched, they didn't have a functioning website. The whole company is a website. That's literally all it is. I thought they weren't serious enough to succeed, and they were just named the world's most innovated company and valued at over $1,000,000,000. Which is why my wife handles all of our investments now.
I learned a bunch of things. It turns out, when you study original people who live non-conformity, who drive creativity and change in the world, they feel a lot of the same doubts and fears that the rest of us do. They have tons of bad ideas, they're procrastinating constantly, and they hate risk. It really upended my notion of what it means to be an original.
Tom: The first section of the conversation will be a little bit about evaluating ideas, how to determine if we have a good idea, then we're going to talk a little bit about advocating and championing them, and how to dissent in an organization as well.
How can we tell if our new ideas are good ideas or bad ideas? We in the investment world know that in order to be a great investor in the public markets you're right maybe only six to seven, at most, out of ten investments. If you're a VC, you're going to be right maybe two or three. There are many people who probably turned down Warby Parker, they're probably excellent investors, it's just the nature of the odds and the stats of how you do.
How can we tell if we have a good idea? What are the best ways to get some evaluation around our belief?
Adam: Thanks for making me feel better about myself. I think my favorite way to look at this comes from this study that a former student of mine, Justin Berg, did, who's now a professor at Stanford, and he wanted to know how do you predict the success of new ideas?
He studied circus artists, like at Cirque du Soleil. He got them to submit videos of their own acts, really novel ones like you've never seen before. Different ways of juggling, and acrobatics, and clowns. Although, it turns out, everyone hates clowns. He was interested in could you predict how successful the videos were going to be with audiences.
13,000-plus audience members watch the videos, they rate how much they like them, they share them on social. They could also donate some of their own money to them to see if they really would pay to see the performers.
The first group that he looks at is people judging their own acts, the artists themselves. They are awful. They are way too positive on their own performances, and they fall in love with lots of bad ideas.
Then he looks at middle managers, and they are disastrous too, for the opposite reason. They are too negative. Every brand new idea that they see, they compare it to a prototype of what's been successful in the past, and they're like yeah, this isn't going to work. They look for all the reasons that an idea is going to fail, not why it's going to succeed.
Then there's a third group that's better than both of them, which is peers, fellow creators, circus performers judging each other's acts. Unlike the artists themselves, they have enough distance to say this is really not a good idea, but unlike the managers, they're invested in the creative process. I think we could all do a better job seeking peer feedback.
If we're managers, one of the things we can do is we can get ourselves to think more like creators. Justin did a study where he had people judge ideas, and first he gave them five minutes to generate ideas of their own, and that made them more open to novel possibilities because they experienced them instead of just evaluating them.
As an investment company, it would be smart for us to encourage those who are looking for new investment ideas to evaluate as many companies as possible. The idea that Mozart has written so many compositions, 600-plus, in order to have maybe ten to 12 true master works.
Tom: Yeah, it's amazing how the people who succeed the most with original ideas are the ones who failed the most because they tried the most. Edison is such a good example of this. He invented a talking doll, so creepy that it scared not only kids, but adults too. I've had nightmares looking at pictures of this doll.
Do you judge him for that? No, you celebrate him for inventing the light bulb. He was also trying to mine iron with magnets, which didn't work very well, and he tried to create a fruit preservation technique that failed. 1,093 patents, only six or seven of them really did any good. The more ideas you consider, the more variety you get, the better your shot of coming up with something truly new.
In terms of succeeding and evaluating those ideas, it turns out, at least one study, handbag buyers who are excellent at evaluating fashion succeed when they have a lot of time to look at each handbag. Right?
Adam: Maybe. A lot of it depends on how much experience you have in the domain. The more experience you have, the better intuition gets. If you're somebody who's trying to figure out if a handbag is counterfeit or whether it's authentic, if you have years of experience, if you're given five seconds to make a snap judgement, you're actually more accurate than if you have 30 seconds to sit down and analyze.
The snap judgment happens on intuition. It's a gut feeling, and all intuition is is pattern recognition. If you build up years of experience, your unconscious mind can process things a lot more quickly than your careful, rational analysis.
However, if you go into a domain where you have no experience, take novice handbag buyers, they are way better when they do analysis than when they work on intuition. We have a lot of investors, Steve Jobs was a great example of this, who say I'm famous for succeeding based on gut feel alone, and that works out really well in the world of software where he knows quite a bit about computers, and phones, and music players. Then he goes over to the Segway to bet on transportation technology, and he uses the same intuition. His intuition is wildly inaccurate when it comes to transportation, and he wants to bet $63,000,000 on a technology that's only used by mall cops.
Tom: Do you believe or do you favor, does your research favor, a leader who has deep experience, and therefore, a high level of successful intuition or do you favor somebody who has less domain expertise and is aware of it, and relies heavily on data and testing? If you had to pick one of the two, perhaps that's a meaningless hypothetical, but ...
Adam: No, present company excluded, definitely the latter. If you look at ... The core job of a leader is to come up with original ideas and make them happen. That's the only way that you can succeed in a competitive world is by thinking differently from everyone else. One of the traps of having deep expertise in one area is that you get entrenched. You get stuck in familiar assumptions, you take for granted things that need to be questioned, and it's often people with the broadest knowledge outside their domains who are the most original.
Look at fashion houses. If you look at the most innovative fashion collections that come out over a couple decades, what you see is they come from directors who have the most experience, not just traveling abroad, but working abroad in countries different from their own.
If you're a leader, it's not that helpful, if you're American, to go take a trip to Canada, although it may help the Canadian economy. What you want to do is you want to go and take a job assignment that rotates you to Eastern Europe or Latin America, and exposes you to new cultures and norms. That doesn't happen cross-culturally. It's about rotating functions and disciplines, and really getting experience outside your comfort zone.
Tom: Let's say that you have now gotten the evaluation of your ideas, your peers have evaluated your thoughts, and now it's time to start advocating them inside of an organization, and you're meeting with resistance. One of the data points that you site in the book, which actually in our Culture Amp ... Do you use Culture Amp? Are you familiar with-
Adam: I am familiar with it, yeah.
Tom: What is your opinion of Culture Amp?
Adam: I don't know enough to judge it. I love the idea of getting a pulse, though, on your culture.
Tom: I'd say our Culture Amp data shows something that matched up with a point that you make in the book about a single-technology company, which you didn't name, which half of all employees felt that it was not a safe place to share a dissenting opinion. That's ballpark true of our company right now. Our numbers have improved over the last couple months because we see it now because of Culture Amp, and we're acting on it, but why is that the case, and what should somebody do when they feel unsafe about something they care about, and their peers have recognized that it has merit?
Adam: I actually think those numbers are pretty good, right? You see a lot of organizations where 80 or 90% of people think it's unsafe to speak up. Then you ask them why, and the obvious answer is fear. People are afraid of getting shot down, of committing some kind of career suicide, but even more than fear, futility holds people back. They think I don't think anything bad is going to happen if I raise this idea, I just don't believe anybody is going to take it seriously, and act on it.
If you're in a context where you're unsure, which is probably true for most people, the first question is do you have enough control and commitment that it's worth a try? Can you have some influence and do you really have some kind of investment in the organization's success?
If the answers to those questions are yes, I think the best thing you can do is go to your most disagreeable peers. Most of us, when we have a new idea or suggestion, we go to agreeable people. They're warm, friendly, polite, and we think they're going to be our cheerleaders. They're great at supporting us in that face-to-face conversation, but they're also afraid to rock the boat. They like harmony, so they won't necessarily advocate for us when it comes to pitch the idea to somebody who doesn't find it that exciting.
Disagreeable people, much more likely to enjoy conflict, and they will tear your idea apart, but that will be useful feedback. Then, if you can get them on board, they will run through walls for you.
Tom: Can you tell the story of Carmen Medina, and a little bit about the angles in addition to trying to advocate an idea when you're also ... You're in a gender minority, an ethnic/racial minority, and what her story is and how she ... The unexpected twists and turns of her work in the CIA.
Adam: I can.
Adam: Do you want me to do it?
Tom: Yes, and because we have 15 minutes, try and do it in nine seconds. No, we're getting through a lot of this very quickly, so thank you.
Adam: Carmen Medina was a CIA analyst who, in the early 90s, believed that intelligence agencies ought to be sharing information. She started advocating for the use of the fax machine, and then the Internet to share across different agencies, and people told her she was insane. They said look, this is dangerous for your career, don't do it, no one can trust the Internet. The reason we use printed documents is because we can classify them and protect them.
She ended up speaking up so vocally that her career basically torpedoed, and she had to look for jobs outside of the CIA. There was only one job within that would take her. What she learned was, especially as a woman and a member of a minority group, she's Hispanic, a lot of people perceived her as aggressive when she spoke up with ideas that were perfectly reasonable.
The way that she was able to overcome that was she said look, I need to find a way to earn status before I exercise power. I need people to respect me and my ideas, and my conventional accomplishments, and then they'll give me a little bit of license. It's called idiosyncrasy credits, that OK, you've really contributed a lot around here. Now it's OK to deviate.
The way she did that is she took a job where her core role was to protect the CIA against security leaks. Her job is to maintain safety, and she does that extremely well, and at the very bottom of her list, she puts on the priorities, we should probably explore the idea of maybe the Internet as something that could help protect us against security leaks. She's able to smuggle this idea inside a Trojan horse.
Eventually, she gets promoted to be director of ... Excuse me. Deputy Director of Intelligence, and she green-lights the first use of the Wikipedia technology to share information across agencies, ends up preventing a few terrorist attacks. Not bad.
Tom: Would you say that it is unfortunate that anyone in an organization has to establish status before they can really, in a forceful way, advocate their idea? Or is it a reality or is it a good thing?
Adam: I think it's a mixed bag. I think it's a travesty that in the 21st Century, we still evaluate people on the basis of their gender or racial group, as opposed to the quality of their ideas. I think in that sense, the fact that you have to work harder to earn status if you're a member of a non-dominant group is a real tragedy.
I think though that outside of those dynamics, there's value in saying not everybody's opinion is equal. We shouldn't live in organizations in a democracy. Churchill said that democracy is the worst system of government except all others. I think it's probably the worst system of running a company, period. I think what we want to do is figure out who has a track record of bringing successful ideas to the table, and then listen to them a little bit more carefully, and that's what earning status is all about.
Tom: In terms of communicating your ideas, I want to run a little exercise right now and put you on the spot, Adam, and instead of asking you to sing, which I thought about doing, I would like you to tap out a popular song on the desk, and see how many people can identify what the song is.
Adam: You're totally turning the tables on me. I love this. I was going to ask you to tap it.
Tom: We're all going to listen to hear what is the obvious song that Adam has in his mind, that we all ... Everyone in the room knows this song.
Adam: Are you ready? How many people think they know it? Okay.
Tom: Three? Okay, how many people ... Okay, good.
Adam: Do you know it, Tom? Shout it out. What was it?
Speaker 3: Imperial March!
Adam: Yes! Darth Vader. Star Wars.
Tom: Why did we do that?
Adam: Why did we do that is when your kids ask you what you did at the Fool today, for those of you that have kids, you can do this exercise.
This is an actual study at Stanford where tappers are given a song, and then they're asked to estimate how many people will recognize it. They guessed 50%, but in reality, when they tap, only 2.5% recognize their song. They are way overconfident. They thought it was going to be one in two. It's only one in 40. Why?
It is humanly impossible to tap your song without hearing the rhythm in your head, which makes it also impossible to imagine what your disjointed tapping sounds like to someone that is not hearing the rhythm in their head. I'm hearing (singing). You're hearing [inaudible 00:15:30]. What is that?
I think this is a great metaphor for communicating original ideas because when you have a new idea that you bring to the table, you are not only hearing the tune in your head, you wrote the song. You spent days, weeks, years working on, thinking through this idea, and the more familiar it gets to you, the harder it is to imagine how it sounds to somebody who is hearing it for the first time.
Tom: How might any of us more effectively communicate that unique idea, and even thinking about our team having an idea, rather than just the individual, the team is tapping out the song of what they believe needs to change, but others can't pick up that tune because they haven't been in those group meetings or they haven't had that original idea themselves?
Adam: I think the first step is to master the art of repetition. It takes usually ten to 20 exposures to a new idea before people are most comfortable to it, excuse me, with it. That's not to say you should go to your boss on Tuesday, six minutes after your idea is shot down, and be like you know that idea I just mentioned, here it is again.
What you want to do is when you get shot down on Tuesday, you come back on Friday, and you say, look, I took your suggestions into account. Here's another spin on this. What do you think? People do tend to start to warm up as they get more exposure to it.
Tom: Now you're going to meet with your boss or somebody who has decision-making authority around your idea, you're ready to communicate, you've heard the point, you want to get in the game and increase frequency, and you're so passionate about it that you're going to advocate the things that you believe in most in the most overconfident or highly confident or highly convicted way. Why might that work or not work and who's Rufus Griscom, who happened to be a classmate of mine in 5th grade which is [crosstalk 00:17:14].
Adam: Seriously? That's a real name? Rufus Griscom?
Tom: We're going to talk about the [inaudible 00:17:18] Effect in a second, but Rufus Griscom, in this case, is an actual person in your book.
Adam: Rufus I found to be the most fascinating idea pitcher that I have come across. Rufus started this parenting website, called Babel, where he wanted to give people honest advice about how to raise kids.
He went to investors and he included in his pitch, here are the three reasons you should not back my company. Of course, this captured attention because who does that, but he walked away with over $3,000,000 in funding that year. I think a couple things happened.
One, he showed he was self-critical, he was balanced, and he wasn't just a Pollyanna who only saw the pros of his ideas. Two, he made it a lot harder for the investors to think of their own objections. They'd be going through their lists, and they're like you know, I had two big concerns, and he just mentioned both of them. To feel smart, they would get into a joint problem solving session about how do you address these issues as opposed to saying here's all the reasons your idea won't work.
Two years later he goes to Disney to try to sell his company, and he includes a slide that says here are the five reasons you should not buy Babel, and Disney ends up buying it for $40,000,000.
Tom: How inside of an organization, non-entrepreneur running their own founded enterprise, but somebody who's looking to advocate their ideas that has a real belief in them, how might they present those ideas to improve their chances of success?
Adam: I'd say go back to what we all learned in debate class or critical writing, which is you're always supposed to consider counter arguments, but we forget to do that when we're making suggestions and pitching ideas. I was very tempted, after writing Originals, to open the book by saying here are the three reasons you should not read it, but did not go there.
I think what we want to do is say look, here are the reasons I'm excited about this idea, here are the problems or concerns that I have come across that I haven't worked out fully yet, and then here's why I think the strengths outweigh the limitations.
Tom: I'm going to waste 30 seconds of our time by telling a story about Rufus Griscom. I was in 5th, 6th grade, it was the school swim meet, Team Blue versus Team White, and I was Team White, and I was the last swimmer in the relay race, and Rufus was the last swimmer in the relay race, and you're told ... I'm a relatively poor swimmer. You're told not to look at the person in the lane next to you. You're in 5th grade, but there's actually ... It was an all-boys school. The all-girls school was visiting for the whole thing, we visit their school during ... And parents are there, so it's a packed house.
When I dive in, we dive in at the same time, the race is basically tied, and I can't help, as I'm swimming freestyle, from turning my head a little bit to see, and I think it was down and back, one time.
About 2/3 of the way down, I could no longer see Rufus next to me, so I swam the whole second half of the lap in dejection that I had just gotten totally blown out. When I arrived, there was cheering. Our team won, and Rufus was a better swimmer than me, and the reason that he was not alongside me is his bathing suit came off. He swam himself out of his bathing suit, and they had to bring a towel in, and everything. I think that probably helped Rufus be a breakthrough original innovator because he went through a slightly horrifying moment for him, and he did it with charm and style.
Adam: Yeah, I really wondered where you were going with that story.
Tom: I think there's something to be said for when you have an experience that embarrassing happen, there's not a whole lot to lose going forward, so why not try?
Let's talk about building alliances in your collaborative ... In the process of collaborating around ideas, around original ideas. Maybe a sentence or two about how vegans view vegetarians?
Adam: Yeah, I-
Tom: You would think that they would immediately ally to around their ideas.
Adam: You would. That's what I thought. This evidence is fascinating. It turns out that vegans hate vegetarians even more than they dislike meat eaters because they see them as sellouts. They're not purists, and this is an unfortunate fact of life that groups that have common goals are often driven apart by those shared objectives because the more extreme groups look down their noses at the more moderate group, and there's ... Freud actually wrote about this. It was one of the only good ideas he ever had. He called it the narcissism of small differences.
I think this is something that, unfortunately, makes it really hard to attract allies when we're championing a moment that's not that popular. The easiest way to get around it is to say it's not so much about the goals that you have. It's about the means that you use to achieve them.
Oftentimes, alliances spring up between groups that have very different objectives, but they have the same methods for working.
Tom: Let's maybe a little bit about ambivalent relationships versus bad or negative relationships. Which are more important in building alliances around your ideas?
Adam: Most people think relationships are either positive or negative, but those are two independent dimensions of a relationship. You've got to draw the 2x2 of how positive is this connection, and also how negative is it. You find there's this fourth kind of tie, which is high positive, high negative. It's called an ambivalent relationship. They're basically frenemies, people who are sometimes your buddies, and sometimes not that nice to you.
There's all this research suggestion frenemies are literally unhealthier relationships than having pure enemies. If you look at the number of close relationships that people have with people they really dislike or people they're ambivalent toward, the more ambivalent ties you have, the worse your physical health is. This seems to be largely because when somebody's an enemy, their behavior is predictable. You know they will never be on your side, you can avoid them or minimize your interdependence with them.
Frenemies, you expend a lot of emotional energy trying to manage and navigate. Is Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde going to show up today?
Tom: Also, enemies, if I'm jumping back to a prior point you made, can give you the most important feedback on your idea, and if you can win them over, they are a huge advocate, which is more difficult with a frenemy.
Adam: There's this classic research by Elliot Aronson showing that the people who like you the most are not the ones who started out as your friends. They're the people who hated your guts and then came to like you because they have to overcome a lot of cognitive dissonance. They're like Tom, I think you're a really bad guy, and then to get to the point of thinking you're a good guy, I really have to be a believer. I'm also a more credible advocate because I can talk to you about how yeah, I too thought Tom was really lacking a lot of hair, but eventually, I came around.
Tom: I want to provide two case studies. One for our organization, one maybe for another organization. Let's take this example.
I think an area of dissent and frustration in our company in question, curiosity and concern is around our marketing. People do not wake up in the morning and say I want an investment service. It's taking a fair amount of advocacy to change the behavior of not being a net saver or investor or thinking that way. That advocacy has led to a lot of email marketing and the data shows that long-form, persuasive, edgy marketing is persuading a higher number out of every 100 to come, but maybe or I think clearly, annoying a larger percentage of people who aren't buying.
There are individuals or groups inside the organization that are like this is wrong. This needs to change. There's a group that's tasked with delivering results around it that I think would make the case, over the last 18 months, we've made a lot of changes, they're just not known ... The progress is not being communicated effectively.
How would you address, from any angle, that challenge that we face? Either people are trying to make the change or people are trying to explain the changes that they're making, et cetera?
Adam: Yeah, I don't know. I just study this stuff.
I'm reminded of Smile Train. Do you guys know this charity, they do cleft palate surgeries? They have the most successful, charitable ask that I have ever seen, which was they sent out a campaign that said if you donate once, we will never ever contact you again. Ever.
The funny thing was, it was their highest renewal rate of donors ever. What they did was they showed that they understood this was not a transaction, it was a relationship, and people were tired of being hounded for money. A lot of people responded to that and said I really want to be a part of this organization. They get it.
I've got to wonder if there's a way to do something similar with email marketing, to make it feel more relational as opposed to transactional.
Tom: Let's say you want to advocate the Smile Train idea inside the Motley Fool. We're revisiting what you said, but maybe the one, two, three, four steps that you might take?
Adam: I guess what I would do is I would start by saying what is it that annoys people about these long and slightly irreverent messages that you guys do so well? Is it the length? Is it that there are some people who don't fully appreciate your humor?
I guess the next step is can you figure out how to do a short, one sentence of humor that's non-offensive? People who click through, you learn something about what their taste is, and then you can give them exposure to what they might find to be entertaining.
Tom: Again, this goes back to your idea in the book, and I think your belief that you should do testing, that testing and data should drive a lot of the changes. Is that true?
Adam: Yeah, I think it's remarkable how many organizations operate on intuition when it comes to these choices, and it's like no, you have the data to do a lots of AB tests. I think the mistake that a lot of us make is we run focus groups where people are in an evaluative mind-set and they don't experience the campaign that your real, potential users or customers would.
I think that one of the best ways to go about this is to say look, we're going to create a bunch of different variations on this campaign, and let's make a bet. Then we have a bunch of metrics to figure out who's right and we will invest in whatever strategy gets the best results.
Tom: I have probably ten more questions, but I've already asked about 15 or 20. I looked down at the amount of time that we have, which in order to get onto the White House is four minutes, so why ask any more questions from me?Yes, Michelle?
Michelle: Earlier, you were talking about how minorities or gender minorities can get buy-in for their ideas, and the example of the CIA has been a really long time building rapport basically. Did you look into how those people can seek out allies of the people who are in status to get ... Does that help with expediting their ideas?
Adam: Yeah, of course. The dark side of that, though, is that so often ... Somebody's who a member of a minority group goes to a white man to advocate for an idea, and pretty soon everybody thinks it's his idea, and he ends up stealing all the credit for it, which is not the goal.
I think that one of the overlooked ways to effectively communicate ideas, especially if you're a member of a minority group is to leverage the power of powerless communication.
There's this research by Alison Fragale where she shows that if you are working with a group where you have some degree of interdependence with other people, they care more about your warmth than your competence. The first thing they evaluate when they listen to your idea is are you a nice, caring person? Do you have the group's best interest at heart?
As a result, even softening your language a little bit by saying ... Instead of here's an idea that I think is really important, to say here's an idea, what do you think of this is enough to get people to be way less threatened by the suggestion your making. Then the question is can you be assertive enough that people are willing to listen to it, but also open enough that you show that you're willing to adjust and adapt as a function of what the group thinks makes sense. So much of that is about framing your idea as here's why I think the group would be better off if we considered the suggestion.
Women in particular are stereotyped as communal and caring, right? Men are typically seen as more ambitious and results-oriented. There's a lot of backlash when women say here's an idea, and it's perceived as serving self-interest. If you can couch it in terms of here's how it's going to make us a lot better, it's a lot easier to get heard. I wish we didn't have to think about these dynamics, but sadly, these stereotypes persist.
Mike: When looking at originals in your book, did you find that it was more important for those people, not necessarily to ideate, but to find problems to ideate on or opportunities? Horse before the carriage or whatever?
Adam: Yeah, I think problem finding is one of the most important skills of original people. I think though that actually, we all have ideas for how we can improve our workplaces or even the world around us. The biggest problem we face is not about generating the ideas. It's about selecting the right ones, and knowing how to champion them.
In a way, what I've been trying to do is write the sequel to creativity. There's lots of guidance about how do you spot a good problem, and identify new ideas? We have way less good information about how you can avoid false positives and false negatives on your betting on ideas, and how do you speak up and find allies, and actually get heard?
Speaker 6: What are the first three steps that you would actually implement, even compare Polaroid to Bridgewater?
Adam: Wow. Somebody read chapter seven. Yeah, Polaroid obviously fell victim to a lot of group think. They were one of the early pioneers to digital imaging, but they had a lot of people who all thought the same way, and they basically said why would anyone ever want to take a picture that you couldn't print, which clearly worked out every well for them.
Bridgewater, on the flip side ... You all know them, right, as a wildly successful hedge fund that has thought very differently than most others in the past 40 years, and-
Tom: Can you give three bullets on Bridgewater's culture that are very unique for anyone that hasn't heard of them?
Adam: Yeah, it's definitely unusual. They audiotape or videotape every conversation and meeting because they believe no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it. If you were to, say, criticize somebody, your boss' boss, then you would get dragged in front of that person, and you would be told look, we don't believe in backstabbing here. You should front stab that person. That's the actual phrase they use, but they think you're a slimy weasel if you're taking behind people's backs, and they believe that if that happens, people fail to learn from each other. They don't hear constructive criticism.
A couple other things they do, in training, you're given a manual of Ray Dalio's principles, over 200 of them, but on every one you're asked do you disagree? You are expected to challenge the core values of the company because that is the core value of the company is they're searching for truth and you can only get to it by disagreeing.
Those are a couple things.
Tom: How about the believability score and then-
Adam: Yeah, that's fun. This is the anti-democracy stance. They want an idea meritocracy. They don't just want every vote to be equal, they want the best ideas to rise to the top. Every employee is given a believability score, which is their track record of their probably of being right based on how successful they've been in the past. When you bring an idea to the table, number one, people look at how believable are you? How right have you been consistently about your decision, and when you were wrong, did you admit it?
Then you're expected, if your believability is low in that domain, it's a domain-specific score, then you have to take that into account and say I know that my believability has been weak in the past in this realm. Here's why I think it's worth listening to me anyway.
Tom: This dissent, challenge, debate culture did not exist inside of Polaroid. Why, and what could Polaroid have done to be more Bridgewater-like?
Adam: I think one of the mistakes that Polaroid made is they hired a lot on cultural fit. By the way, this is a great way to start a company. If you look at research on Silicon Valley start-ups, companies that hire on cultural fit as opposed to skills or potential, they were more likely to survive, they're more likely to go public, and then after that, they grow at slower rates.
You have these really original founders who basically hire people who think exactly like them, and you get homogeneity instead of diversity of thought. That's obviously dangerous. What I would have loved to see Polaroid do is hire on cultural contribution, which is a great idea from Ideo. They say look, instead of replicating what's already in your culture when you hire, what if you hire on the basis of what's missing in your culture and then try and emphasize and promote that, so that the culture is constantly enriched? I think that would've helped a lot.
Tom: Nate, final question.
Nate: [inaudible 00:33:22] mind blown [inaudible 00:33:23].
Tom: Mind blown.
Nate: Yeah, I give my time back to Adam Grant.
Tom: Okay, Adam, closing comment. If you can stand another five minutes, but it's 11:47, and we think we're important, we love ourselves, but the White House trump us.
Adam: Their security takes longer to get through. That's all I can say.
Speaker 8: Let's hope that's the only trump.
Adam: No comment.
I have heard some rumors that my great institution is going to be renamed the Donald J. Trump School of Business.
Tom: Maybe I'll say what is an idea you're advocating at the University of Pennsylvania, where you work, or an issue that you see at Penn or with universities in general that you feel you want to build alliances around or drive change into that culture?
Adam: Personally, one thing I would love to see happen is I would love to see professors get tenure for being great teachers, not just great researchers. Normally, the way it works is you get your ideas vetted, and if you've made enough of a research contribution, then it's a bonus if you teach well.
I think that teaching is every bit as important as research, probably more important, and I would love to see separate tracts for people who are great at translating and communicating ideas. Imagine a university world where professors who excelled at research, but were not passionate teachers got their full time available to do research, and then people who are great teachers could have job security, and focus on that. I think we'd have much better universities.
Tom: I think we're going to respect Adam's time, and say thank you so much for 40 awesome minutes, and thanks for the great questions, and for spending time with us.
Adam: Thank you, all. I just want to say thanks to Tom for one, reading the book above and beyond, and two, drawing out the most interesting things, so none of you have to ever read it. Thank you.