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Prof Adam Grant

Challenges in the Acceptance of Originality


I have observed a paradox in life. Many people want you think outside the box but they do so from the box of accepted norm. Many people encourage originality and yet when they are presented with novel solutions to life problems their default position is: “Where has this been done before?” This really frustrates the originals. If it has been done before then it’s not original! Its inside the box. Incredible!

Rob Minkoff correctly observed, “Originality is what everybody wants, but there is a sweet spot. If it’s not original enough, its boring or trite. If it’s too original, it may be hard for the audience to understand. The goal is to push the envelop, not tear the envelop.”

Adam Grant proposes that while radical originality is often necessary to put a stake in the ground, one needs a wider audience to make an impact. He proposes that to reach that wider audience one needs a tempered approach rather than radicalism in order to have others buy-in to your radical concept. He thus advances the following two approaches to creating alliances for your original idea:

  1. Instead of assuming that others share your values and principles of originality or instead of trying to convince them to adopt your values: you may need to consider presenting your original values and principles as a means to pursue their own values and goals. Demonstrate how your original ideas accentuate their dreams and pursuits. He argues that it is much easier to link your agenda to familiar values and principles that they already hold.
  2. Instead of being fully transparent with your full concept and ideas, it may be wise to disguise them through reframing your original concepts in order for them to appeal to the audience. This is because as Minkoff notes. “With absolute originality, you can lose people.” They are too comfortable with the status quo even when it does not serve their purposes. Most people cover their back by staying in their comfort zone professionally. It is therefore critical to take your audience stage by stage from the known to the unknown. This has to be done gradually or you shock their system with a radical innovation that they then reject as either a scam or fake.

Originals’ values depart from traditions and common practice. Their ideas go against the grain so they may have to become tempered radicals. They need to learn how to tone down their radical original ideas by presenting them in ways that are less shocking and more appealing to the mainstream audience. In some cases they may need to make their implausible ideas plausible by deliberately obscuring the more extreme features of their ideas in the first instance.

Many originals fail because they refuse to moderate their radical ideas. They often forget that while they have worked hard to understand their concept the audience is getting the initial exposure. So a better way is to use a “foot in the door” technique whereby you introduce a smaller aspect of your original idea to secure initial commitment before revealing the more incredible aspects. Take one step at a time.

Do not be too excited about your novel concept because that can kill it. Some colleagues and I discovered an innovative solution to some problems in Africa and naively started presenting them to decision makers. We expected our audiences to wholeheartedly espouse our solutions. Since the concept was too novel the audience could not believe the solution. It seemed too good to be true and so we failed to secure any commitments. We have since learned to tone down our proposals to gain initial commitment. We are now committed to pushing the envelop and not tear it. It takes lots of restraint from the innovator because you see the end game which your audience cannot see yet.

It is therefore important to make your innovation palatable by slowly exposing various aspects of the original idea rather than fully exposing it all at once. One has to demonstrate how this concept will not force people to change their values or deeply held beliefs about this concept. Show rather how it actually builds on their current belief. Your original concept has to be accepted for it to be useful to the community and profitable to you.

Source: These thoughts were inspired by Adam Grant’s “Originals”

The Myth of First Mover Advantage

In entrepreneurship there is a myth that if you are first to market you always win. Its called the firsts mover advantage. Prof Adam Grant in his book, Originals, reports on a classic study by Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis which compared the success of first mover (pioneers) and settlers. Settlers are companies which were slower to launch their product and who waited for pioneers to create the market. Their first finding was that pioneers had a  47% failure rate while settlers had only an 8% failure rate. This leads to the conclusion that : being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better. Since the market is generally more focused and easily defined when settlers enter, they can focus on providing superior quality instead of defining the product or service. They bust this myth by identifying the following disadvantages of first movers:

  1. When originals rush to pioneer they are prone to overstep. For example one study showed that 75% of pioneers in a study of 3000 startups failed because of premature scaling of their business when the market was yet ready to support it.
  2. Settlers tend to be ore risk- averse while pioneers act out of intuition and take radical risks. So settlers tend to balance their portfolios of risk and reduce the risk of failure. They also wait for the right opportunity. They do not spend lots of money developing the market unlike the pioneers. In other words settlers are not recklessly ambitious but they enter the market cautiously.
  3. Settlers get the opportunity to improve the pioneers’ technology or service delivery model to make better products. The pioneers have to make all the mistakes themselves and at their own expense while settlers learn from the mistakes of pioneers.
  4. While pioneers often get stuck in their first offering settlers can observe the market changes and shifting consumer tastes and so adjust their offering accordingly. Obviously settlers can afford the luxury of waiting for the market to be ready.

This however should not be a wholesale discouragement of first mover advantages. Its just placing balance to the picture. Obviously if we all wait to be settlers then there will be no pioneers and nothing original would be created. First mover advantage seems to work best when patented technology is involved or when there are strong network effects (e.g the product becomes more valuable when there are a greater number of users like on social media). However the odds of failure if you are a pioneer are higher.

When the market is uncertain, unknown or underdeveloped, then its better to enter as  settler rather than a pioneer.

Wishing you the best. God bless as you push your entrepreneurial dream.