Adam Grant (Should) Think Again: Creating A Culture of Innovation

This is the third of four blog posts.

Adam Grant’s previous book titled, Originals[:] How Non-Conformists Move The World was reviewed in two blog posts (Part I and Part II) titled “Ten Ideas on Originals, Non-conformists & Entrepreneurs.”

Can an organization become more innovative? Yes, according to Adam Grant, but it’s not easy. The organization must have the right culture, like fertile soil, from which the innovation grows.

An important aspect of fostering innovation is an environment in which people can think again, think for themselves and offer ideas that counter groupthink. This will only happen with an appropriate culture.

How to start? Active listening. In modern culture, particularly, this is a lost art. Most people are looking for an audience. So, active listening can be powerful. Grant explains that “The power of listening doesn’t lie just in giving people the space to reflect on their views. It’s a display of respect and an expression of care.” [159]

Despite many great insights, Grant has a penchant for concluding with the obvious. One shibboleth is that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Grant’s restatement: “Once we’ve demonstrated that we care about them and their goals, they’re more than willing to listen to us.” [159-160]

In a puzzling rabbit trail, Grant ridicules a couple of high-profile psychologists. He refers to Daniel Goleman, who has written extensively on emotional intelligence, and Jordan Peterson, who comments on most things. In brief, Grant states: “Both men hold doctorates in psychology, but neither seems particularly interested in creating an accurate record. If Peterson had bothered to read….If Goleman hadn’t ignored…..I think they’re both missing the point” [175] Grant likely imagines the two of them having coffee on top of Mount Stupid (see previous blog).

Grant, feeling his oats, also takes a pot shot at the Myers-Briggs personality tool which he says, “falls somewhere between a horoscope and a heart monitor.” [177] Millions of people will now be checking their astrological signs.

Grant addresses how to create an appropriate culture of innovation specifically in the field of education. He is a business school professor, after all. He explains that “I believe that good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.” [203] This reflects the common advice to students to prioritize great professors before great courses.

Grant explains that “Ultimately, education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads. It’s the habits we develop as we keep revising our drafts and the skills we build to keep learning.” [203] What he is describing is law school for many of us. Great law schools teach students to “think like a lawyer.” The faculty will make clear that much of the law being studied will have changed by graduation, but the key aspect is the intellectual framework for thinking.

Grant outlines the significant implications of rethinking for corporations. He posits that “Rethinking is not just an individual skill. It’s a collective capability, and it depends heavily on an organizational culture.” [207]. This is a good reminder that the environment must be right; not everyone wants to be challenged by others who are rethinking.

“Rethinking is more likely to happen in a learning culture, where growth is the core value and rethinking cycles are routine…Evidence shows that in learning cultures, organizations innovate more and make fewer mistakes….I’ve learned that learning cultures thrive under a particular combination of psychological safety and accountability.” [208]

Grant makes a good point about psychological safety. It’s the stereotype about the boss encouraging people to say what they think—and everyone knows better than to actually do so. What is “psychological safety?”

Grant’s definition: “It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal. It’s the foundation of a learning culture.” [209] Grant shares his experience: “I knew that changing the culture of an entire organization [Gates Foundation] is daunting while changing the culture of a team is more feasible. It starts with modelling the values we want to promote, identifying and praising others who exemplify them, and building a coalition of colleagues who are committed to making the change.” [212]

In short, Grant offers useful insights on creating a culture in which thinking again can exist. This is important as most cultures end up in variations of uniformity and not challenging hierarchy. To counteract this and get the most of innovative ideas is not easy.

Other blog posts in this series: 

Adam Grant (Should) Think Again: How & Why to Rethink

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

Adam Grant (Should) Think Again: How to Find Happiness & Meaning