Creative leaders are original

Menno van Dijk
Article by: Menno van Dijk
Creative leaders are original

Abstract from the book Originals by Adam Grant.


Creative leadership (or “originality” in Adam Grant’s words) is taking the road less traveled, and championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better. It involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain with the potential to improve it.  Creative leaders are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality. They feel the same fear and the same doubt as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action in spite of it. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.

Sensing starts with curiosity

The starting point is curiosity. We face something familiar, but we see with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

Rice professor Erik Dane found that the more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world. How do we maintain an explorative mindset?  The unique combination of deep experience and broad interest is critical. The personality trait most associated with creativity is called openness, the tendency to seek out novelty and variety in intellectual, aesthetic and emotional pursuits. A representative study of thousands of Americans showed that both entrepreneurs and inventors were more likely than their peers to have leisure time hobbies that involved drawing, painting, architecture, sculpture, and literature. Highly creative adults had moved to new cities more frequently than their peers during their childhood, which gave them exposure to different cultures and values, and encouraged flexibility and adaptability. Living abroad didn’t matter: it was time immersing abroad.  The more the foreign culture differed from their native one, the more that experience contributed to their creativity.  The third and most important factor was depth – the amount of time spent working abroad. Short stints did little good.

creative leaders are original
Creative leaders have a tendency to seek out novelty and variety in intellectual, aesthetic and, emotional pursuits. Click To Tweet

Visioning is about quantity more than quality

It’s widely assumed that there’s a trade off between quantity and quality – if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it – but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. So how do we maximize their odds of creating a truly great new insight, and a really valuable concept? We come up with a large number of ideas. On average, creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produce a greater volume of work, which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality. Many people fail to achieve true originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.

creative leaders are original
Creative leaders produce a greater volume of work, which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality. Click To Tweet

Prototyping instead of market research

The lesson here isn’t to ask customers what they want. As the famous line often attributed to Henry Ford goes: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Instead, creative leaders ought to build a car and see if customers will drive it. That means identifying a potential need, designing what The Lean Startup author Eric Ries calls a minimum viable product, testing different versions, and gathering feedback.

creative leaders are original
Creative leaders should create and test different versions of their prototype and gather valuable feedback, instead of conducting extensive market research. Click To Tweet

It scales when peers say so, and when you make it happen

To accurately predict the success of a novel idea, it’s best to be a creator in the domain you’re judging.  For instance, when artists assessed one another’s performances, they were about twice as accurate as managers and test audiences. So instead of attempting to assess our own originality or seeking feedback from the market or managers, we ought to turn more often to our colleagues or peers.  Our judgment is only accurate in domains where we have a lot of experience and where we can make predictions.  In environments that are changing or unpredictable, we risk being overconfident.  The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment. They are less likely to seek critical feedback even though the context is radically different.  Non-experts – which include “experts” in environments that are rapidly changing – make sounder judgments when they conduct a thorough analysis.

There’s plenty of evidence that passionate entrepreneurs are able to grow their ventures faster and more successfully.  If we want to forecast whether the originators of a novel idea will make it successful, we need to look beyond the enthusiasm they express about their ideas and focus on the enthusiasm for execution that they reveal through their actions.

Join the THNK Executive Leadership Program to discover how to become a well-rounded creative leader who takes initiative, is an expert at prototyping, and knows when to scale their business.