In Search of Creative, Independent Thinkers

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Dec 6, 2016

It’s hard to find a leader today who isn’t aggressively calling for growth and innovation within their organization and hasn’t clamored for more creative, original thinkers to make those goals a reality.

But where do we find all this creative talent – and how do we harness it? Is the ability to be an out-of-the-box thinker a matter of nature or nurture?

Where to find creativity

In his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton School professor Adam Grant investigated the patterns of behavior that led to original, independent thought. Grant defined originality as the ability to champion an idea that’s different from – and better than – others in its category.

His ‘originals’ chose to champion novel ideas and values that went against the norm, battled conformity, and bucked outdated tradition in their organizations.

The good news for all of us is that our creativity can be improved over time, but paradoxically, the path to improving the creative thinking process may be counter-intuitive.

Originality is a team sport

Rather than finding an abundance of extroverted super-brainstormers, Grant’s ‘originals’ thrived not by coming up with new concepts, but by being able to discern which ideas worked best. In fact, Grant found the biggest barrier to original thought wasn’t idea generation (or the lack of it) but idea selection.

The most useful ideas came forward after collaborating with others, challenging the status quo and seeking pushback, rather than working in isolation. And the best way to get better at judging the quality and viability of ideas is to gather feedback from others who have a great deal of experience in the topic.

What leaders should do

1. Avoid groupthink: Defined as the pressure to conform to the dominant, default views instead of championing diversity of thought, leaders should hire for cultural contribution rather than just for cultural fit. You can hire for cultural contribution by figuring out what values are not adequately represented or missing from your culture and assessing potential candidates for how they can improve the culture.

2. Avoid confirmation bias: Defined as seeking out information to support an existing preference, leaders must unleash genuine dissenters in the organization to challenge ideas as they’re surfaced, rather than assigning employees to randomly take the opposite point of view during a discussion. (No matter how skilled, role-playing devil’s advocates don’t usually argue against the idea forcefully enough, and may even have a credibility problem with the remainder of the group.)

Genuine dissenters challenge people to doubt themselves, and dissenting opinions are useful even when they’re wrong. When pitching a new idea, it’s also effective to accentuate the flaws in the idea to let other members of the discussion know you’re not blindly advocating for the idea. Likewise, it’s hard to directly change other peoples’ minds – it’s much easier to link your idea to familiar values that people already hold and build from there.

To unearth dissenters, Grant recommends meeting with employees one-on-one to find out what they truly believe, and inviting into the conversation the more introverted employees who often remain silent during group conversations.

3. Combat conformity: Strive to make it easy for people to challenge leadership and encourage people to disagree. Here, the behavior of those at the top sets an important example. Grant recommends that leaders voice their own weaknesses to encourage feedback, and evaluate employees on how well they challenge upward.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on
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