Tuesday 23 January 2018

Why every office needs a nonconformist

A new book shows how individuals who break the rules can benefit us all

Original: US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Original: US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Sara Blakely, creator of Spanx.

Harry Wallop

When you need to type a website address into your computer or smartphone, which browser do you use: Safari, Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer? Well, if you use Firefox or Chrome, you are more likely to stay in your job longer, to turn up to work more often, and - if you are a salesman - be more successful. This is the conclusion of a detailed study of 30,000 workers at various companies.

Why on earth would that be? Simple, says Adam Grant, a business school professor: Internet Explorer comes as the default browser on PCs, and Safari is pre-installed on Apple products.

"To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better," he says. "And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work."

The finding is one of many he has collected in his entertaining book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World. Though perhaps a better title might be "how surprisingly normal people change the world".

Because, in some ways, it is a manifesto for ordinary folk - employees in a big company, or even parents bringing up children. It is full of quite fun facts, not least that young siblings are significantly better baseball players when it comes to stealing base, and that Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech was written at 10pm the night before it was delivered - and its most famous line was ad-libbed on the day.

Seinfeld, apparently, nearly ended up on the cutting-room floor after it was panned by test audiences. But it was rescued by a persistent producer, Rick Ludwin - who did not work in the sitcom department of NBC and wasn't bothered that the show broke all the "rules" of TV comedy.

One of Grant's theories is that many of the great entrepreneurs have been cautious procrastinators.

"We need to separate the idea of risk-taking and recklessness from having original ideas," he says. "Originals are initiative-takers; that doesn't mean they have to be risk-takers."

He cites examples of people who have come up with great ideas, but been too nervous to quit their day job. After working out how to dramatically improve internet searches, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google refused to drop out of their PhD at Stanford. Sara Blakely carried on selling fax machines for two years after developing Spanx. Her body-shaping lingerie may not have been sexy, but it made her the youngest self-made billionaire. Likewise, Jessica Herrin, founder of the fashion brand Stella & Dot, "was also told by everyone she was crazy not to quit her day job".

Grant is also good at supplying figures that back up his idea that entrepreneurs who take major risks are more likely to fail; those who kept their day jobs had 33pc lower odds of failure than those who quit to follow their dream.

"The advantage of being cautious is that you wait for the right time," he says. "Rather than putting the first version out there, you put out the best version."

Herrin and Blakely are two fairly rare examples of women "originals" in the book. He says there is a reason for this, and it comes down to another of his theories - namely, practice makes perfect.

Mozart, JS Bach and Picasso are widely hailed as genii, but he argues they are merely prolific. ("Some of the stuff Picasso churned out is really bad.") I raise an eyebrow at this.

"Look, unquestionably the more baseline talent you start with, the easier it is for the variety you generate to help you stumble on originality," he argues. "And the more ideas you churn out, the more practice you are getting, which helps with quality."

He points out that women are often hampered by taking time out of work to raise children, reducing the time they have to stumble across an original idea.

Grant, 34, is a psychologist by training, now an organisational psychologist - a trendy area of academia that analyses our offices and workplaces in a bid to make us healthier, wealthier, or at least a bit less dysfunctional.

This is his second book; his first, Give and Take, was translated into 27 languages. At 29, he was the youngest tenured professor to be appointed at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, and has been hailed by both Malcolm Gladwell and Sheryl Sandberg as the next big thing.

He jokes that he is a terrible investor himself, failing to spot brilliant business ideas by his students. Grant insists his lack of track record (save three years as an advertising salesman) does not mean he shouldn't teach business. "Does obeying the laws of gravity make you a physicist?" he asks forcefully.

As well as teaching, he spends quite a bit of time consulting, giving advice to the UN and a number of tech companies. He is a huge admirer of the nonconformist streak that runs through Silicon Valley, but says that may be the reason why they don't play ball when it comes to paying much tax.

"Some of the same nonconforming instincts that led them to see the world differently also motivate them to push back against rules that don't make sense to them."

But shouldn't Google - one of the companies he advises - and Facebook just pay like everyone else? "There is a line of reasoning that says if you are going to do business in a country, you need to follow their laws. But I also think if you are doing something that is going to be disruptive in a positive sense, that sometimes we need to give a bit of leeway to organisations that are challenging meaningful changes."

He argues that a rebellious streak is also one of the reasons Donald Trump is doing so well in the race to be the Republican candidate for US president. "He is a nonconformist, relative to how the American political system has traditionally operated.

"He takes a lot of pride in not being politically correct. However, some of his policies are highly conformist. There is research coming out that the people most motivated to vote for Donald Trump are authoritarians."

An undecided voter, Grant refuses to dismiss a Trump presidency as the disaster imagined by America's liberal elite. "He is in the perfect position to build a team of rivals, which we have not seen since Abraham Lincoln. He would have the courage to reach across party lines and bring the best thinkers together.

"That is the hidden benefit of being a nonconformist: people don't expect you to follow the rules."

Is Trump a Firefox or Chrome user? "I don't know." And how about you? "I use Firefox and occasionally Chrome," he laughs. "Of course." © Daily Telegraph

'Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World (Ebury, €26) is out now.

Irish Independent

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