Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

An incisive look at why innovators succeed

Adam Grant didn't invest in Warby Parker, and lost an opportunity to make a bundle. Prof. Grant is a noted management expert at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, with a legion of blue-chip consulting clients and a bestselling book, Give and Take, to his credit. Warby Parker is the innovative seller of eyeglasses over the Internet, disrupting a staid industry.

"It was the worst financial decision I've ever made, and I needed to understand where I went wrong," he writes in his new book Originals, an incisive look into why he blew that decision and, more generally, why innovators succeed.

Originals are people who take the initiative to make their vision a reality, like the four Wharton students who decided to sell eyeglasses online. After one of them lost his glasses on a backpacking expedition, they wondered why a replacement pair should cost as much as an iPad.

Story continues below advertisement

Great insight, but Prof. Grant had other supposedly superior insights suggesting their idea would flop. None had any expertise in e-commerce. They didn't believe in their idea enough to quit school or shun postgraduation conventional jobs and plunge into the venture full-time; they chose to work on it part-time, suggesting they lacked an entrepreneur's risk quotient. It even took them six months to come up with the company name, based on two characters created by Jack Kerouac.

They were too much like Prof. Grant, who admits to enjoying the security of tenure. "In my mind, they were destined to fail because they played it safe instead of betting the farm. But in fact, this is exactly why they succeeded," he writes.

Originality does not require extreme risk-taking. A study showed that entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33-per-cent lower odds of failure than those who quit. Having security in one realm seems to give the freedom to be original in another. "If you're risk averse and have some doubts about the feasibility of your ideas, it's likely that your business will be built to last. If you're a free-wheeling gambler, your startup is far more fragile," he observes.

Interestingly, child prodigies tend not to change the world because, at an early age, they tend to accept rather than challenge the status quo. Originals are willing to challenge the default beliefs they and others hold. In doing so, Prof. Grant has found they are more likely to succeed if:

They can actually recognize original ideas: Often we don't recognize the creative ideas we have or select properly among them to decide which to champion. Beethoven's favourites among his many compositions are not those cherished by posterity. Creative geniuses, Prof. Grant found, tend to come up with a larger number of ideas, a few which succeed.

They know how and when to present their ideas: It takes a certain amount of status and power to voice new ideas and not be beaten back. He suggests, however, that you are better off pitching ideas to unsupportive than agreeable people – since they are more comfortable taking a stand against convention – and also individuals with a track record of originality.

They know when to delay: It's conventional wisdom that first movers – people who are first to market with a new idea – are the big winners, but studies show that's not true. Remember the adage about fools rushing in? "You don't have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don't always arrive on schedule. They are fashionably late to the party," he advises.

Story continues below advertisement

They know how to build – and maintain – coalitions: We assume that common goals bind groups but he shows how the narcissism of small differences can create hostility between like-minded folks. It helps to be a tempered radical, toning down your radicalism so that new ideas are less shocking and more appealing to mainstream audiences.

They have been nurtured from youth to be rebels with a cause: Progress involves risk and Prof. Grant shows how the baseball players who were best at the risky art of stealing home plate tended not to be born first in their family. Later-born children are launched into life with security from their more relaxed parents and supportive siblings, and are thus more willing to take risks. Originality has roots in how you were raised.

They know how to work with others but avoid group-think: Bridgewater Associates, an investment management firm, is a model, hiring people who tend to dissent and encouraging a free-thinking culture.

They manage anxiety, apathy, ambivalence, and anger: They know how to rock the boat, but also keep it afloat. They turn fear into excitement, a more positive attitude.

If that seems disparate, it barely scratches the surface. Prof. Grant roams widely, sharing an awesome amount of fascinating research. At times you will get lost, losing sight of how to make practical use of the ideas. Indeed, in many cases you won't be able to – it's just absorbing reading. But originals change the world, and this is an impressively rich look at how they operate.


Story continues below advertisement

Organize Tomorrow Today (Da Capo, 211 pages, $27.50) by performance coaches Jason Selk and Tom Bartow, with writer Matthew Rudy, offers eight ways to retrain your mind for optimal performance at work and in life.

In Navigating an Organizational Crisis (Praeger, 166 pages, $46.95) consultants Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson explore the importance of recognition and response, caring for oneself and others, and storytelling.

PricewaterhouseCoopers consultants Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, with writer Art Kleiner, show how to close the strategy-to-execution gap in Strategy that Works (Harvard Business Review Press, 264 pages, $40).

Report an error
About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨