Adam Grant’s 5 Ways to Bring Ideas to Life

HR can inspire workplace creativity with a few key steps.
By: | October 29, 2018 • 3 min read

We all have brilliant ideas—but what does it take to transform sparks of creativity into living, breathing realities?

There are five key ways to bring ideas to life in modern workplaces, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant. Grant shared his insights at last week’s Shift Conference in Philadelphia. Presented by BetterUp, a digital platform that offers personalized coaching to employees across all levels of a company, the conference focused on the science behind human-capital transformation. Grant, a New York Times bestselling author and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, recently joined BetterUp’s Science Board, comprised of leaders in behavioral psychology, anthropology, design thinking and executive coaching.

Speaking at the conference to the crowd of HR professionals, coaches, psychologists and other thought leaders, Grant outlined steps that forward-thinking employees and leaders can take to bring ideas out of the abstract–many of which, he noted, should resonate with HR professionals looking to inspire creativity in their workforces.

Put Your Worst Foot Forward

When you begin a pitch by pointing out flaws in your proposal, it activates what he says is known as availability bias: “If it’s easy to think of, it’s easy to think it’s true,” he said. For example, if during a meeting, a worker outlined all the challenges that could stymie her idea—and followed up with strategies for mitigating them—those considering the proposal may be inclined to think those challenges are essentially the worst-case scenario, for which she’s already prepared. Grant referenced Rufus Griscom, who raised millions for his start-up parenting magazine, Babble, by telling investors why not to invest.

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Make the Unfamiliar Familiar

Grant led the approximately 150 conference guests in a group exercise: Each was asked to pick a simple tune and tap it out on the table for their neighbor to guess the song—very few did so successfully. Grant likened the practice to bringing a new idea to the workplace: It sounds perfect in your head, but others are hearing it for the first time. “It takes 10 to 20 exposures to a new idea before it can gain traction,” he said, noting successful innovators need to “master the art of repetition.”

Evaluate Givers and Takers

Grant classified people as givers or takers—descriptors that represent their inner motives and values. Within those two categories, he said, people tend to be agreeable or disagreeable—their outer presentation, which may or may not match their motives.

Within an organization, agreeable givers are often the most visible and vocal about helping make ideas happen, yet it is the disagreeable givers who can be the real innovators, Grant said, as they’re willing to give of themselves but also comfortable challenging the norms and presenting new ideas.

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Recruit New Allies

Crowdsourcing has exploded in online fundraising—and Grant suggested it can also be used for workplace innovation. He recalled a similar approach his students took when one noted he had a dream of working at Six Flags Great Adventure but hadn’t been able to get his foot in the door for an interview, so Grant assigned the class to make it happen; within days, the student was on the phone with the CEO of the amusement park (though he quickly learned working at the park didn’t sound like his cup of teainstead, Grant said, he was inspired to further study organizational-design concepts to help innovate amusement parks). If you have a project you want to pursue but aren’t sure of the logistics, he noted, pitch it to the team and see who can help move the ball forward. But, he said, “at the organizational level, many people often lack the psychological safety to do that.”

Create Psychological Safety

Most often, Grant noted, managers accidentally “crush” psychological safety. Statements such as “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions” may originate from good intentions, he said, but will likely strangle true creativity on the part of workers. HR can be key in countering that trend, Grant suggested.

For instance, create a “problem box” to replace the outdated “suggestion box,” which can encourage employees to feel they can frankly address ongoing workplace issues. Brainstorming sessions about how to “kill the company”—in which workers take a deep dive into all of the threats that could potentially cripple a business—can also be effective. “You need a support network,” he said, “but you also need a challenge network.”

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]

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