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Innovation

What makes a great idea succeed? Adam Grant's new book explores how to be 'original'

A new book dissects how creative ideas turn into successful business plan by busting myths about what it takes to be an original.

Image: Adam Grant

When Adam Grant was approached by a couple of his students who wanted him to invest in their new business, he balked at the idea. They were still in school, after all, playing it safe. And the idea itself didn't seem like it would work—would people really want to buy designer glasses online?

The idea was for the company that would become Warby Parker. And his decision not to invest was one of Adam Grant's biggest financial mistakes.

Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and influential business writer, began to rethink what he knew about becoming successful—the subject of his new book, Originals, which was published today. "I'd been focusing on behaviors, not traits," he said. So he began studying "originals," which is basically what happens after you have the great idea, said Grant. "It's putting ideas to action. It picks up where creativity leaves off."

SEE: New book 'Inventology' shows how today's inventors can tap big data, 3D printing, crowdfunding, and more

He started looking at common ideas about originals. Are they all risk-takers? Are they all first-movers?

The risk-taking myth

Grant found that many people who drive change are not risk-takers. They usually have a backup plan. And they are often slower to the game, since they spend time gathering data and opinions before launching an idea.

"I was surprised to discover that a lot of great originals are procrastinators," said Grant. "The time they delay starting the task allows them to do non-linear thinking. It's usually the settlers, not the pioneers, who have a better shot of succeeding, by refining and improving an idea."

"It's usually the settlers, not the pioneers, who have a better shot of succeeding, by refining and improving an idea." Adam Grant

Range of interests

Originals don't stick to one field. They have many interests, and "that curiosity helps them make connections where others miss it." When designing new product, said Grant, you should borrow ideas from different domains. Reebok, for example, tapped the expertise of people in medical devices to help make their sneakers with an inflatable pump built in.

Quantity of ideas

"Most people believe there's a negative relationship between quantity and quality," said Grant. But what he found showed otherwise. "The people we admire most did not have better ideas than their peers," he said, "they just had more of them."

"The people we admire most did not have better ideas than their peers," he said, "they just had more of them." Adam Grant

Grant points to Einstein, Darwin, Mozart, and other "originals" as examples of people who generated a lot of content. We don't remember them for their misses, he said.

There's a big takeaway here for the business world: If you want to produce something creative, you must maximize the of ideas generated. Too often, Grant said, we don't go far enough. The average of the first 15 ideas is less original than the following 20, he said. The problem is that we don't often get past the first 15.

Don't just look at what has succeeded in the past

Often, said Grant, we can get trapped in an evaluative mindset. Harry Potter was first deemed to be an inappropriate length based on what had been done before. The problem is that the idea was evaluated based on what had been done before. But the "whole point of originality," said Grant, "is that it's supposed to be different."

SEE: The history of 'The Innovators' tells us that collaboration is core to innovation

When to trust intuitions

When we have a lot of experience in an area, said Grant, it's easier to see patterns—we should trust our intuitions. In contrast, if we're new, we should do more reasoned research before judging.

Here's a good example: Steve Jobs backed the Segway, which he saw as the next big innovation in transportation. It was a flop. Why was his intuition wrong? While Jobs had a lot of tech experience, he didn't have a background in mobility, and should not have trusted his gut in that case.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  • Being original does not mean being first—it's about being different and better than before.
  • Produce, produce, produce. The best ideas often come after a lot of garbage has been generated.
  • Know when to trust intuition (if you're an expert) and when to do your research (when you don't know enough about the field).

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About

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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