Wanted: Free thinkers!

Everyone loves originality and people with original ideas. Really?

Let’s be honest – originality is often seen as a disturbing factor in many organisations, with individuals who are themselves “original” considered “lateral thinkers” at best. Over time we have developed a whole arsenal of defensive comments which exclusively serve to nip originality in the bud: but we’ve always done it like that. Let’s wait and see. That’s a little too outside the box for my liking.

Originality infringes on the status quo because it takes on conventions and time-honoured ideas, paving the way for something new. It’s divergent – an adventure off the beaten path of routine. And that’s exactly why it endangers the stability of an organisation: by calling into question the things that aren’t to be questioned. That’s also why original thinkers are often considered tiring, as looking at unfamiliar ideas demands a great deal of energy.

In a society in which copycats set the tone, wives of presidential candidates hold the same speech as their predecessor, where logos, dog leads and almost everything else is “inspired” by something else, and middle management is sent to creative seminars if only to parrot back what others teach them is creative – originality is indeed in short supply. And yet the rarer something is, the more we enjoy talking about it. It’s like the rhinoceros – an animal increasingly hitting our TV screens the closer it edges towards extinction. After just 0.63 seconds, Google turns up some 36 million hits for the term “originality”.

We should therefore take any claims of originality with a pinch of salt – because if they were indeed original, they certainly wouldn’t be saying it, at least most of them.

We now know that if we ask individual participants of a group to suggest solutions to a problem, the quality of the ideas will mostly be superior to those exclusively produced in group situations. But that isn’t the only reason why so-called “groupthink” is slowly stifling originality within organisations and companies. The word itself should give cause for reflection. Groupthink is the modus operandi for long meetings in which the results are essentially clear in advance. These types of discussions at work mostly serve to form consensus and avoid any conflicts – something that generally animates participants to keep any doubts to themselves and back the dominant opinion, even if they actually think: I can’t see that working.

Instead of a diversity of opinion, we cultivate mental monocultures. The resultant fatal consequences can leave a company’s ecosystem resembling something akin to a colourless palm oil plantation. Groupthink creates organisational dinosaurs with insular world views, unable to react quickly and properly to new challenges. Kodak, Polaroid, Nokia, Blackberry – the list of extinct dinosaurs is pretty lengthy. And though each one of these companies has its own story, they all share the fate of not having been open to alternatives when the chips were down.

Examples of groupthink are everywhere. It is always worth taking a closer look within organisations where terms like “team” and “team spirit” are bandied around. These buzzwords are often intended less as a call to active participation and instead serve as a means to maintain discipline and subordination. They are backed by the unspoken desire of the management to be surrounded by loyal followers who don’t offer any non-conformist views, allowing them to do what they think has to be done in peace.

It is worth noting at this point that the strong sense of togetherness which we would generally associate with groupthink actually effects exactly the opposite. In a study quoted by Adam Grant in his bestseller Originals, scientists discovered that groups that have developed a strong sense of togetherness are “most probably sufficiently set in their roles to enable group members to contradict each other.” A strong sense of togetherness therefore actually enables contradicting views, and therefore has nothing to do with groupthink, which works to neutralise non-conformist thinking.

Important: Non-conformist opinions are helpful, even if they’re wrong! Dissenting voices are much more useful than convenient conformist agreement, particularly in situations where disagreement is most difficult to take. If the norm is no longer working and the status quo is throwing up problems, convention-breaking ideas offer up new solutions more often than not. The open invitation to disagree not only forms the basis for every form of originality, it can also be a commercially-relevant success factor.

The question remains of how a corporate culture can be constructed in which originality – defined as non-conformist and open thinking – truly has its place. The best example is perhaps the American asset management company Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater manages more than 150 billion dollars on behalf of institutional investors and is one of the world’s most successful companies. Visitors to the Bridgewater website are greeted with this introductory remark:

Radical truth and radical transparency. Openly and thoughtfully disagreeing on important issues is the most powerful way of creating meaningful work, meaningful relationships and great outcomes.

The Bridgewater secret is that employees are encouraged to express original ideas. The ability to voice and accept criticism plays a key role already in the employee selection process. Bridgewater’s corporate principles contain a number of statements anchoring this concept, such as “no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up.” And that even applies to the lowly customer advisor who wrote this email to the company’s founder and owner Ray Dalio after one meeting: “It was clear to see that you weren’t prepared today, given how disorganised you were when you started speaking. We told you that we shouldn’t miss out on this opportunity – but that was terrible today… it shouldn’t happen again.”

What would be considered suicide in most other companies led to the boss at Bridgewater demanding feedback from the other participants of the meeting, instead of him sweeping his poor performance under the rug. This certainly isn’t the easy option for most managers, but it ensures that no form of cosy mediocrity can emerge in which honest opinions can only be whispered behind closed doors. Ensuring the best ideas prosper – no matter whether they conform to those of the boss or not – requires a meritocracy of ideas in which everyone can establish their own credibility.

One last thing: Research proves that so-called “surface acting” – i.e. the simulating of emotions which you don’t feel and suppression of non-conformist thinking in consensus-driven organisations – can actually lead to burn-out. It’s considered exhausting and produces stress.


Adam Grant, Originals, New York 2016

Photo credits:
1st picture (girl with black hair and nose ring): Ramak Fazel
2nd picture: Tanja Heffner on Unsplash
3rd picture: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

4th picture: Timothy Paul Smith on Unsplash

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