11 Amazing Things I Learned about Organizational Leadership from this Psychology Book
“A great idea is a great start. But what you do next and how you do it, is what counts.”
I just finished reading the book Originals, by Adam Grant. This was a very special gift from a good friend as I was leaving the company we had been working in together for the past five years.
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and a magnificent researcher at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His work revolves around the basic idea that, in the end, even the largest organizations are run by individuals, whose brain works in a certain way, given their past memories and their instincts. So understanding how personalities are formed and how the brain justifies a decision is fundamental to run teams and organizations in a healthy way.
In his book Originals, he goes through a variety of scientifically-proven tactics for the human psychology that, when put into action, will make innovators and organizational leaders much more creative and efficient in making change happen. Here’s my top 15 picks from the book:
1 — Disruption comes from those who are unreasonable enough to take risk. Surprisingly, those are the ones that have enough stability.
The general opinion is that people tend to build a comfort zone and stay there, thus becoming more difficult for them to take a risk or change things. Statistically, research actually shows the contrary: people who have built a security buffer (e.g., emotional stability, a stable source of income, etc) have a much higher chance of success when trying new things out.
In order to succeed at trying new things, make sure you’ve built yourself a certain level of stability and have a place where to crash in case things go wrong.
2— Creativity doesn’t produce originality. Actionable methodologies to select the best ideas that could proliferate does.
Artists are good at creating brand new stuff. In that sense, ideas are the very first step of innovation. However, Originals shows that the best ideas that proliferate don’t come from better thinkers, but from those who try many more times. That is, those who produce more quantity, have a higher chance to become innovators than those who focus all their creative effort on just one idea.
In order to make something novel happen, try to ideate, prototype and iterate many times. That will give you a higher chance of finding a good selection that can proliferate and become an innovation.
When pitching an idea in front of an audience, we always tend to put out the best arguments of why they should buy in. According to the author’s research, however, it’s best to argue against your own idea to disarm the audience. For example, instead of telling them why should they buy your product, what if you try: “you should definitely not buy this product if you are…”
By doing this, the audience immediately stops thinking of you as a sales person, and they start to think “why is this person telling me not to buy”. This makes the audience brain think of you as an advisor (telling them not to buy, to be careful), which indirectly creates trust in your speech. Additionally, by stating the problems of your idea, you make it extremely more difficult for the audience to come up with their own objections. This is called the Sarick Effect.
4 — The exposure effect
New names, things (and brands), provoke fear because the brain is trying to defend us from the unknown. As Grant’s experiment proves, no matter how weird a new thing is (word, name, person, object, etc), the more you see it, the more comfortable you start to feel with it. Eventually, you’ll feel so safe and comfortable with that new thing that, inexplicably, you will start to like it and even prefer it over other things. In simple terms, we tend to get used to things we constantly see or interact with.
As a leader, you should never try to introduce something big all of a sudden. Instead, try to first build the necessary exposure and make sure people start to get familiar with the new thing even without noticing (subliminal promotion). By the time you decide to introduce the new change / product / name / idea, they will most likely feel comfortable with it and, by extension, they will help you champion it inside the organization. And it will be all done unconsciously for them!
5 — Lead top down or bottom up. Never from the middle.
Change is the only thing that is constant. Change leadership is inevitable at any growth organization. In order to lead change, you will always need to work with a series of strategic collaborators who, together with you, can make change happen. Organizational collaborators can be team members, influencers, decision makers, etc.
When choosing the right collaborators to help you drive change, it is so much easier to get either the highest ranks of the company or the lowest ones on board. Never the middle managers. The reason that Adam Grant documents for this in Originals is that middle managers are in a position of conformity. They are not supposed to change too many things, but just manage. Plus, they are being measured on hard management and strategic goals not set by themselves.
6 — Procrastinating is creativity’s best friend
Procrastinating is the enemy of productivity but, according to Grant’s research, it is of great help to creativity. When it comes to concept development, our brain functions in a highly project-oriented way. Once something is regarded as completed, our brain “closes the case” and “archives the project”. This means that we can move onto new projects and literally forget about the one we just completed.
However, finishing something soon enough can be lethal for the creative part of the task. Scientific research shows that, when you postpone something, the brain never “forgets” about that work and you keep developing the concept in the back of your head, without even thinking about it.
This is one of my favorite findings in the book, because it’s the most counter-intuitive advise I’ve ever heard about procrastination. Adam goes even deeper in this matter and lists major historical events where people like Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci or Martim Luther King postponed their biggest works until the right time came to finalize them. All of them changing the science, history or our entire civilization in major ways.
7 — The Marshmallow challenge
Coming up with a hit product is always one of the most difficult challenges for organizations. Adam Grant takes on the eternal debate of “research vs. experimentation” with a concept known as the Marshmallow challenge. This concept is based on a test done to children and adults who are supposed to build the tallest possible structure with spaghetti and marshmallow candy in less than five minutes.
Adults often team up to deeply think strategies on how spaghetti can support the marshmallow. On the contrary, kids simply start building different versions of it without thinking at all. Surprisingly, children consistently beat adults in this challenge, because they learn much quicker from every failed experiment and eventually come up with a solution that works.
Thinking is good, doing is better. Get out there and execute, collect feedback, build a better strategy, execute, repeat 😉
8 —Lead by example
“Lead by example” is generally considered a great practice among leaders. Originals proposes a scientifically proven method to enhance leadership by example: show the consequences. More concretely, show the effects and consequences that will happen to others (outside of your team), for every possible ending of the project.
People are social animals with a tendency for empathy. When our brain understands the pain others are going through, they start to mirror that pain into themselves. This imprints a sense of responsibility for making things right and better. That’s why great leaders are great communicators; because they know how to involve their teams by expressing the vision in terms of consequences to others, and how the world will be different if the team delivers.
9 — Strong think-alike cultures are innovation’s worst enemy
Hiring is the single most important activity in a company, especially in the growth phase. When hiring, 99% of the companies advocate for the so-called “cultural fit”, which purportedly means “people who think alike and have similar philosophy”.
Astonishingly, groupthink turns out to be extremely toxic. When people with similar ideas try to brainstorm for new ideas and solve challenges, they tend to generate a more limited number of radical ideas and solutions. This lack of radically opposed and controversial ideas is what makes challenging the status quo very hard. For this reason, very strong cultures become blunt in the long term in growth companies (e.g., CEOs start to ask advice from only people who think alike, so that they hear what they want).
To avoid this, make sure very opposite-minded people are part of big decisions. For example, Google Head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, created something called the “canaries”. The canaries it’s partly a focus group and partly an advisory board made of differently-opinioned employees. Every time Google is about to introduce a radical change, they always consult with the canaries to get the best variety of feedback. This has a huge positive impact on changes in two ways:
- ideas are certainly radical and challenge the status quo of an existing market
- the stronger opposers become the best advocates and make things happen
10 —Don’t try to remain calm, try to get excited
When big moments arrive and we are supposed to deliver, e.g., at a stage in front of many people, we tend to tell ourselves to remain calm and do the best we can. Telling ourselves to be calm is a reminder that there is big pressure on top, which activates our nervous system to become more defensive and segregates adrenaline to our body.
Instead of trying to tell yourself to “remain calm”, why not to “try to get excited”. By changing the desired outcome (excitement), you will channel all the adrenaline to become the fuel to deliver your speech with excitement. In other words, converting an emotion into another one of equal energy, but which propel is further, can make you keep going with a great end result 🚀
11— Don’t show what a product can do, show what the users can become
We all buy products and services to get a job done. Whether it is to solve a really painful problem or elevate our personal status in the society, we always want to get a job done, and we can either do it ourselves or hire something to do it for us. This is the very basis of marketing in terms of the buyers’ behavior. I recommend you to check the concept Jobs to be Done from Clayton Christensen, if you haven’t checked it already.
Originals reviews the stories of some of the greatest marketing strategies for products that changed our lives. One of them that caught my attention was Skype. The most famous pitch ever that Skype had was “it’s not about making cheap phone calls, it’s about being together when not physically in the same room”.
This shows how the product will make people become (the benefit and post-benefit of the outcome), instead of what the tool they pay for is. The same applies to Instagram. When the app started to get popular back in 2010, it wasn’t because it was a great software. It was because Instagram could turn any person into a “great photographer”.
When marketing a new product, never focus on the product features or technology itself. Instead, tell your users the story of what they will become, thanks to using your product 🦄
If you work in strategic marketing or organizational leadership, and want to discuss more on this topic, drop me a line. You can also follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.