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5 steps to growing 'originals' in an organization

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Adam Grant at the Aspen Ideas Festival
Adam Grant at the Aspen Ideas Festival
Dan Bayer | Aspen Ideas Festival

Many people are taught from a young age to never speak out of turn and to always respect authority.

But the people who stand out and speak up for their ideas and principles are the ones that move the world forward, says Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.

Grant, who calls these people "originals," studies how to create organizations that encourage many voices, so more people can express their originality and create new ideas without fear.

"If you're somebody like me who's constantly following the rules how can you get comfortable speaking up? And more importantly how can you do that effectively?" he told the Aspen Ideas Festival in a June presentation rebroadcast Thursday by MPR News.

To better understand how to encourage these innovative individuals, Grant created a top 5 list of things that he's learned about being original, and supporting original people.

1) Idea selection is a developed skill

While the people who create content tend to rate their own ideas as better than they should, managers are often too negative when facing new concepts to be fair judges, either.

The best forecasters for new ideas are peers, Grant said. Fellow creators are more invested in the creative process and are able to critique while not being afraid to take a chance on novel ideas, since they have many of their own.

"I'd love to see a rule; every time we look at new ideas, before we evaluate other people's ideas we should brainstorm about our own," Grant said.

2) Communicate in a familiar way

Confidence can sometimes backfire, Grant said. If you pitch an idea with absolute certainty that it will be accepted, you might be forgetting that the listener hasn't experienced the idea in the same way you have.

"What you want to do is master the art of repetition, which is all about making the unfamiliar feel familiar," Grant said. "You have to take your idea, the more original it is, and figure out how it's like something people already get. Then you connect those dots, you build a bridge and it's a lot easier for them to grasp."

3) Create a culture of transparency

In a solution focused culture, most people feel they can't point out problems unless they already have a solution, which means large issues can be ignored until it's too late, Grant said.

"So I love to see organizations say look, 'We actually want to make it safe for people to bring problems to the table'," he said.

Bringing up these issues can be difficult and in some cases could result in confrontation, but it also creates opportunities for creative problem solving in a group that otherwise would have been ignored.

4) Every 'original' needs allies

Data shows that common goals are more likely to drive people apart instead of bringing them together, Grant said.

"Extreme groups often look down their noses at more mainstream groups, they view them as sellouts," Grant said. "So you have to be thoughtful about who you go to."

Most people you interact with are either givers or takers. Givers are the people who like to share ideas and are always asking how they can help, Grant said, takers are more likely to volunteer for projects that are visible and important, then do very little work to get results.

"The givers will try to make your idea better, and help you succeed," Grant said. "The taker will either steal it or try to make sure that it doesn't threaten their success."

To find the givers you want to talk to, look for people who challenge the status quo or attempt to champion unpopular minority ideas, he said.

5) Put values above rules

Rules, of course, are important growing up, "but when you have rules, kids are much more likely to internalize them when you actually explain the why behind them," Grant said.

Children are far more likely to develop principles for themselves when you tie rules to reason, and therefore feel justified when challenging things they may not agree with later in life, Grant said.

To raise a child to be a creative giver, make sure you are praising your child not for the act of following the rules or creating something; but for being the kind of person who would do good things and create.

"So what I should have been saying this whole time is not 'wow that was really helpful.' Instead 'wow, you are really helpful,'" Grant said. "Not 'thank you for giving,' but instead 'thank you for being a giver.'"

Grant is the author of "Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World."

To listen to the entire speech, click the audio player above.

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