How to Build a Culture of Originality

Published October 30, 2017

Adam Grant’s (GLS 2015) excellent article for Harvard Business Review dispels the myth that innovation only exists in Silicon Valley or with the entrepreneurial few. Instead, he explains how leaders can encourage original thinking in any organization.

If there’s one place on earth where originality goes to die, I’d managed to find it. I was charged with unleashing innovation and change in the ultimate bastion of bureaucracy. It was a place where people accepted defaults without question, followed rules without explanation, and clung to traditions and technologies long after they’d become obsolete: the U.S. Navy.

But in a matter of months, the navy was exploding with originality—and not because of anything I’d done. It launched a major innovation task force and helped to form a Department of Defense outpost in Silicon Valley to get up to speed on cutting-edge technology. Surprisingly, these changes didn’t come from the top of the navy’s command-and-control structure. They were initiated at the bottom, by a group of junior officers in their twenties and thirties.

When I started digging for more details, multiple insiders pointed to a young aviator named Ben Kohlmann. Officers called him a troublemaker, rabble-rouser, disrupter, heretic and radical. And in direct violation of the military ethos, these were terms of endearment.

Kohlmann lit the match by creating the navy’s first rapid-innovation cell—a network of original thinkers who would collaborate to question long-held assumptions and generate new ideas. To start assembling the group, he searched for black sheep: people with a history of nonconformity. One recruit had been fired from a nuclear submarine for disobeying a commander’s order. Another had flat-out refused to go to basic training. Others had yelled at senior flag officers and flouted chains of command by writing public blog posts to express their iconoclastic views. “They were lone wolves,” Kohlmann says. “Most of them had a track record of insubordination.”

Kohlmann realized, however, that to fuel and sustain innovation throughout the navy, he needed more than a few lone wolves. So while working as an instructor and director of flight operations, he set about building a culture of nonconformity.

He talked to senior leaders about expanding his network and got their buy-in. He recruited sailors who had never shown a desire to challenge the status quo and exposed them to new ways of thinking. They visited centers of innovation excellence outside the military, from Google to the Rocky Mountain Institute. They devoured a monthly syllabus of readings on innovation and debated ideas during regular happy hours and robust online discussions.

Soon they pioneered the use of 3-D printers on ships and a robotic fish for stealth underwater missions—and other rapid-innovation cells began springing up around the military. “Culture is king,” Kohlmann says. “When people discovered their voice, they became unstoppable.”

Empowering the rank and file to innovate is where most leaders fall short. Instead, they try to recruit brash entrepreneurial types to bring fresh ideas and energy into their organizations—and then leave it at that. It’s a wrongheaded approach, because it assumes that the best innovators are rare creatures with special gifts.

Research shows that entrepreneurs who succeed over the long haul are actually more risk-averse than their peers. The hotshots burn bright for a while but tend to fizzle out. So relying on a few exceptional folks who fit a romanticized creative profile is a short-term move that underestimates everyone else.

Most people are in fact quite capable of novel thinking and problem solving, if only their organizations would stop pounding them into conformity.

When everyone thinks in similar ways and sticks to dominant norms, businesses are doomed to stagnate. To fight that inertia and drive innovation and change effectively, leaders need sustained original thinking in their organizations. They get it by building a culture of nonconformity, as Kohlmann did in the navy. I’ve been studying this for the better part of a decade, and it turns out to be less difficult than I expected.

Click here to read the rest of Adam Grant’s Harvard Business Review article.

About the Author
Adam Grant

Adam Grant

Professor & Author

Wharton School of Business

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton. Named one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors and one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40, he is the best-selling author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success and Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. His pioneering research has led to increased performance and reduced burnout among business professionals—concluding that a giving mindset might be the best path to getting ahead.

Years at GLS 2015

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