In praise of the unreasonable man (or woman)

Nonconformists are less likely to prosper. No wonder companies underperform, finds Piers Cain

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There is a growing sense among business thinkers that the traditional corporate organization is no longer fit for purpose. It stifles the creativity we need to make the most of the opportunities of new technologies, unleash economic growth and achieve personal fulfilment. Originals by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is an interesting contribution to this debate. Grant has the knack of drawing surprising lessons from case studies by integrating research from sociology, psychology and history. He has produced that rare beast – a business book that is a bit of a page-turner.

This is a manual for becoming a more effective ‘Original’, a nonconformist who wants to change the world. It suggests tactics for surviving the corporate jungle, and getting new and potentially unpopular ideas adopted. For chief executives, it discusses how to promote a corporate culture open to new ideas. It even provides tips on how to educate your children to become effective nonconformists. For example, research shows that people typically become more positive about a new idea after ten to twenty exposures to it, particularly if the idea communicated is short, spaced apart by a few days and mixed in with other things. Or, if you need to ‘pitch’ your radical proposition to a sceptical audience, consider setting out the case why your idea won’t work – counterintuitively your audience will start thinking your innovation isn’t so bad after all (this only works for good ideas).

Grant is realistic about the risks of proposing new ideas in a corporate environment. In one study covering manufacturing, service retail and non-profit sectors, the more frequently employees raised ideas and concerns with their superiors, the less likely they were to receive pay rises and promotions over a two-year period. He cites the horrible example of CIA analyst Carmen Medina, who in the 1990s proposed sharing intelligence between agencies via a secure classified intranet, rather than by circulating paper reports. Her face didn’t fit, so rather than being supported, she was nearly fired and sent to corporate Siberia for three years. But ten years later, she was able to implement what became Intellipedia and was awarded a medal in recognition.

It could so easily have ended otherwise. What enabled Medina to succeed in the end? It was a combination of luck, persistence and better tactics: she had a supportive boss, she rebuilt her credibility in the intelligence community and, as she rose through the ranks and assembled a network of supporters, she reframed her ideas to make them seem less threatening. In other words, the odds are still weighted against the corporate nonconformist. There is no easy solution, but there are tactics and strategies that can help. Originals is a good place to start.

Adam Grant begins this book by quoting George Bernard Shaw. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” What Grant doesn’t mention is that, in addition to promoting various progressive causes, Shaw was also an advocate of eugenics and an uncritical admirer of Stalin. This points to an unexamined assumption underpinning this book that might have been explored further – the impulse that some people have to ‘change the world for the better’ can be uncritically regarded as a good thing. The millions who died under Stalin’s rule might consider it a mixed blessing. 

Originals: How nonconformists change the world Adam Grant, WH Allen

— Piers Cain is a management consultant

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