Adam Grant (Should) Think Again: How To Foster Innovation

This is the second of four blog posts.

The value of Think Again to business leaders is largely as it relates to innovation, which is about thinking anew—in Grant’s parlance, to “think again. He notes that “Rethinking is a skill set, but it’s also a mindset.” [16]

In order to understand the dynamics around thinking, he divides people into four mindsets. First, there is the “Preacher” – proclaiming that we’re right and others aren’t. Second, there is the “prosecutor” – demonstrating that others are wrong. Third, there are “politicians” – trying to get support for their view. Fourth, there are “scientists” – rational people, proposing hypotheses and constantly retesting.

The characterizations are superficially useful but collapse upon the slightest examination. He must have heard Jonathan Edwards type of sermons as a wee lad. With respect to scientists, he is apparently not aware of Richard Dawkins, the shrill cocksure biologist who comes across as an atheist fundamentalist, rather than a paragon of rational enterprise.

Grant wishes for us all to become scientists. He notes that “We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge.” [20]

However, as Niall Ferguson recently pointed out on page 64 in Doom[:] The Politics of Catastrophe, “…scientific methods can be abused to produce any number of spurious correlations—for example, between the signs of the zodiac and the chances of survival of leukemia sufferers who receive a stem-cell transplant.”

In any event, Grant highlights the role of the proper mindset. He explains that “No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again.” [24]

He highlights by way of reminder two biases: “confirmation bias” (seeing what we expect to see) and “desirability bias” (seeing what we want to see) [25]. In both instances, he advises that we need to think again.

Another situation that requires one to think again is having too much confidence. Grant notes that “…it’s when we lack competence that we’re most likely to be brimming with overconfidence” [38]

Those who don’t think again, often due to a lack of humility, are “stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid” [42]. This name-calling seems somewhat incongruent for an academic. Of course, one person’s Mount Stupid is another person’s Mount Rushmore.

Innovation can be facilitated by recognizing our own shortcomings. We should recognize that being wrong is fine. Grant explains that “To unlock the joy of being wrong, we need to detach. I’ve learned that two kinds of detachment are especially useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity.” [62]

Grant explains the process: “Every time we encounter new information, we have a choice. We can attach our opinions to our identities and stand our ground in the stubbornness of preaching and prosecuting. Or we can operate more like scientists, define ourselves as people committed to the pursuit of truth—even if it means proving our own view wrong.” [76]

Innovation can be undermined by not handling conflict well. Grant offers the insight that there are two types of conflict: “relationship conflict” and “task conflict.” Relationship conflict is generally bad for performance; task conflict can be beneficial [80]. At the same time, there are a lot of people pleasers who avoid conflict

He is not a fan of the adversarial Steve Jobs-type approach. Grant argues that “When we‘re trying to persuade people, we frequently take an adversarial approach. Instead of opening their minds, we effectively shut them down or rile them up.” [103] Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

How do we function in an area rife with conflict? He cites skilled negotiators. He notes that “When we concede that someone else has made a good point, we signal that we’re not preachers, prosecutors, or politicians trying to advance an agenda. We’re scientists trying to get to the truth.” [107]

Can people change, or think again? Grant reviews the concept of “motivational interviewing,” which likely many people are doing without knowing that there was a name for it. Grant explains that “The central premise is that we can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better off helping them to find their own motivation to change.” [146] There are three key techniques: asking open-ended questions, engaging in reflective listening; and affirming the person’s desire and ability to change [147]

Grant highlights the value of “motivational interviewing” which “requires a genuine desire to help people reach their goals.” [155]. He notes that “The moment people feel that we’re trying to persuade them, our behaviour takes on a different meaning.” [155] Of course, this is what every professional advisor experiences. They are positioning themselves as an advisor, gaining the trust of the individual and trying to get to a solution, rather than being a salesperson.

In short, Grant reviews a number of interesting concepts related to thinking again, understanding conflict, and fostering innovation, all of which require a deft touch.