Why don't we value non-conformists in business?

If you aspire to be a change-maker, Originals has some refreshing advice. But why can't organisations make it easier for mavericks?

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 19 May 2016

There are two routes to achievement,' the author notes, 'conformity or originality'. From where I am standing, it seems that the rewards of conformity are declining rapidly; there are more and more people available who are willing and able to do what is expected of them. And that is before you even consider the impact of machines ...

So I'd definitely bet on originality over conformity. But being a successful original is hard. It is one of the great virtues of the book that it recognises that originality, while more and more necessary to the future of organisations, is still very often not well-received there.

The examples are refreshingly varied, and aren't limited to business. Classics like Martin Luther King and the CIA get extensive coverage, while Facebook gets none (despite Sheryl Sandberg writing the introduction). It is good to read something about innovation which doesn't make the assumption that the world started in Silicon Valley, in about 1990, and that nothing relevant happened before then or is happening anywhere else.

The author is great on the obstacles facing the creative or original person. He is not in any way pessimistic, but it is good to know what you are up against. Schumpeter famously talked about 'creative destruction', but let's not forget that for every person turned on by 'creative' there are 10 turned off by 'destruction'. Originals are the ones who question the status quo, but most people are inclined to rationalise it as legitimate, even if it goes against their own interests. It is an emotional painkiller. If the world is supposed to be this way we don't need to be dissatisfied with it. If you feel like an original battling against a situation which is clearly unjust or stupid but are struggling to convince others, this will be a great comfort to you. You aren't mad, you just have a higher pain threshold.

Comfort and complacency are powerful forces against change - 'It's rare that originality comes from insiders, especially when they are as entrenched and comfortable as the optical industry.' And there is still a great resistance when it comes to speaking truth to power. Of 40,000 employees at a technology company, half felt it was not safe to voice dissenting opinions at work. In consulting, financial services, media, pharmaceuticals and advertising companies, 85% admitted to keeping quiet about an important concern.

At this point you may be beginning to despair, but don't. The rest of the book offers a range of strategies for becoming what the author terms a 'tempered radical' - someone who doesn't buy into the status quo but is sufficiently pragmatic, ingenious and if needed devious to bring about change where it is necessary but not necessarily welcome. It's a mixture of insight from recent research in cognitive psychology, timeless wisdom and low cunning. There is a debt to Machiavelli as well as to Daniel Kahneman.

The author offers a toolbox for achieving change in apparently unpromising situations. In the process, he debunks a wide range of myths. Procrastination can be an effective way to work. Entrepreneurs are very risk-averse, and many successful founders actually kept their day jobs for a long time after starting their companies. When it comes to generating new ideas, quantity matters more than quality. And in any case, it is idea selection, not generation, that really matters.

I was left feeling rather ambivalent. We are given a picture of the world in which most people are conservative, somewhat afraid and busy rationalising existing ways of doing things. Organisations need new ideas but resist them. It's all rather reminiscent of my days as a turnaround specialist. The organisation was clearly failing, but I was expected to produce success using the same worn-out strategies that had led to failure. To be successful, I had to be subtle to the point of being devious; giving the impression of doing things one way while actually doing them quite differently. This book would have helped me then and it will help you if you are one of those wilful, creative individuals who just can't accept clapped-out ideas and methods simply because they have been around for a long time.

But is this the best we can do? A world where progress is driven by a small group of people who need to operate like a persecuted minority or secret cult? What can we do to create organisations which welcome the forces of renewal instead of resisting them? Professor Grant, I look forward to your next book.

Originals by Adam Grant is published by WH Allen, £20

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Visit alastairdryburgh.com

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