In a world that in theory praises failure all across management and leadership wisdom (“failure leads to growth”), in reality many people’s number one worry is that they would fail publicly in something that they have invested heavily in.
This means that most of us curb the innovation and original ideas that reside within us and are content in not challenging status quo but plodding along in the context that we live in.
Luckily for all of us, Professor Adam Grant has written the book Originals that distils key insights from his research with originals, how people develop innovative ideas, and how we can act on these.
Let’s have a look at three distinct yet pervasive myths: taking risks, being the first-mover, and how to build coalitions around your idea in order to understand what we should and should not do when we seek to be original in our respective professional domains.
Balancing a risk portfolio under uncertainty
Adam Grant notes in the Originals that the reason why innovation occurs is because people take calculated risks while having a diverse risk portfolio and most importantly, act on their ideas.
Having an original idea is actually not that rare but it is rare that people take action to make the idea to reality: the most innovative and original people generate constantly a diversity of ideas, and then choose which ones are worth acting upon.
Good news all around for us especially who bank on our ideas to make careers.
People with original ideas are often described as lone crazy wolves who sit in dark rooms, see the light, and then come out with an incredible idea and throw everything else on the side.
Yet, most of the innovators and originals are just like you and me:
“the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and movement…the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence and self-doubt”(p. 16)
They don’t take extraordinary risks but rather maintain a balanced risk portfolio in their lives: while they might take larger risks in one area, they won’t take in others.
Most innovators don’t abandon their fulltime jobs to go all in but rather start developing a business or the idea on the side when they have time, with the aim of maintaining some form of stability in their lives.
This is similar to authors like Dorie Clark who talks about the importance of having a “portfolio career” where you purposefully maintain a range of income sources so that if one falls through, the others will still be there and carry you through.
Put it simply, not putting all your eggs in one basket (although again there are myths around how you must do so) is something that many innovators abide by.
There is nothing wrong in believing in your idea and testing the waters first.
Early worms get caught
Another myth exists about timing of innovations and launching of new products: that each original busts the market straightaway with their new innovation, that they are the true first-movers to come up with ideas and then spreading the innovation in a very short space of time.
Yet, the originals are not those necessarily who launch their idea first to the marketplace:
“Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better” (p. 105).
Many of the innovators are actually late comers to a market but once they do, they quickly dominate.
This is because they have the patience to observe the market, develop their ideas and improve what they are doing by learning from others who dare to challenge the market first.
Being a first-mover therefore is not necessarily a guaranteed advantage because “early bird gets the worm, but we can’t forget that the early worm gets caught” (p. 93).
This also signals some form of capacity for deep reflection, not running ahead with a half-baked idea but taking focused time to develop the idea to its best form.
Innovators are in other words keen observers of the trends around them while also allowing themselves the space to think differently and identifying key opportunities to contribute.
Garnering support for your ideas: hawks and the doves
Movements begin and are imagined into life by those who are often radical; by those who are tired with the status quo, and those who see and vision something greater and better.
This is often a much smaller group of people who are ready to challenge the way things are, the way things have always been.
They want alternatives and change, and change is something that most of us are hardwired to resist because it is embedded in uncertainty for not knowing what change can accomplish.
The Goldilocks theory of coalition building states that in order to create movements that have broader uptake, a message needs to be framed so that it has the ability to attract the broadest diversity of values: not too hot, not too cold.
Therefore, the originals and innovators are not always the best people to gather broader support for their ideas as these are often quite radical and challenging.
When you are building coalitions and trying get broader buy-in for a vision, never send a hawk to the meeting but always the dove.
Send always those people who are temperate enough to speak to a diversity of values, who do not ask radical change but who have the ability to point a way forward in a way that honors the core values of the original vision yet appeal to a broader audience.
This approach is crucial because coalition building is about finding common points of agreement:
“Instead of assuming that others share our principles, or trying to convince them to adopt ours, we ought to present our values as a means for pursuing theirs. It’s hard to change other people’s ideals. It’s much easier to link our agendas to familiar values that people already hold”(p. 140).
Building coalitions therefore is a fine balance between radicalism and innovative ideas and finding common ground.
Lessons for climate adaptation
While reading this book, I have of course reflected on how some of these myth busting ideas could also contribute to the field of adaptation science.
I think one of the most important lessons is that of coalition building, and that we need both those radical original thinkers who challenge the field and how things are done but also those who know how to communicate this vision across a diversity of values that people hold.
Climate adaptation is everything and can be integrated to anything, making it an ambivalent, messy and unpredictable issue especially in a policy landscape where most important decisions are about short-term job creation, guaranteeing access to basic services, and increasing people’s well-being in the here and now.
With climate adaptation however, we are forced to look both at the short- and long-term and ask hard questions (under uncertainty) as to how we can successfully marry the immediate needs, aspirations and values with longer term strategies that can maintain communities in a changing climate.
This message, at least for me, is positive but the question is how do we normalise adaptation into the mainstream and build strong coalitions across all sectors to make sure we are ready to change a changing world?
These are key lessons for organisations like IPCC and UNFCCC who are looking to create coalitions across political and ideological boundaries in the attempt to secure both good robust decisions and offer the best available science possible as the basis for those decisions.
Many of these insights from Originals are also highly applicable to leaders when they are contemplating how to move their companies forward, and how to test and develop innovative ideas and ways of doing things.
The key factors for being original are fearless movement forward accompanied by reflection, willingness to challenge the status quo while surrounding yourself with people who can help your ideas to spread, and balancing risks across your portfolio of ideas.