A Wharton professor explains why hiring nonconformists is essential to any company’s future

Bestselling author and Wharton professor Adam Grant has spent years researching and interviewing originals. There’s the seasoned chief executive who cusses freely and challenges candidates to apply for jobs by tweeting at her. Or the author who tackles weighty topics like artificial intelligence and virtual reality with stick figure illustrations. And the former spy who founded an airline and is betting on Utah as the next big tech hub. In Originals, Grant shows how to identify, foster, and nurture nonconformists—here he expounds on how to recognize and recruit them in a startup setting.

As a former magician and Junior Olympic springboard diver, Grant is in the company of the curious, versatile brethren he’s profiled. But for those seeking conventional curriculum vitae, he’s got that in spades, too. Grant is perennially recognized as Wharton’s top-rated professor and has been named one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers. He’s spoken to and consulted with a range of organizations, from Google to Johnson & Johnson and from Pixar to the US Army. A prolific writer, Grant is the author of Give and Take, an active blogger, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times.

In this interview, Grant explains why it’s imperative for early-stage companies to hire originals. He shares how he singles them out and delves into recommended questions and exercises that can help startups find and hire them.

The case to hire originals at startups

The initial act of founding a company is an expression of nonconformity. They must eventually convince others to join them, internalize that vision and will it into reality. But isn’t it counterintuitive to bring other originals—who may buck their ideas—into the fold?

“It’s true that every leader needs followers. We can’t all be nonconformists at every moment, but conformity is dangerous—especially for an entity in formation,” says Grant. “If you don’t hire originals, you run the risk of people disagreeing but not voicing their dissent. You want people who choose to follow because they genuinely believe in ideas, not because they’re afraid to be punished if they don’t. For startups, there’s so much pivoting that’s required that if you have a bunch of sheep, you’re in bad shape.”

Here’s more of Grant’s thinking on why it’s so essential to bring aboard originals early in the life of a company:

  • To seed a resilient culture. By default, companies are built in the image of their founders, which is why it’s vital to proactively introduce diversity of thought. “A resilient culture has a certain amount of resistance embedded in it. Not too much to capsize it, but enough so that it doesn’t atrophy,” says Grant. “What happens when startups get successful and grow is that they become more and more vulnerable to the attraction-selection-attrition cycle, where people of the same stripes are increasingly drawn to the organization, chosen by it, and retained at it. The way to combat that homogeneity creep is to proactively infuse the culture with originals, who have the will and skill to think differently. It’ll put you in a much better position to continue innovating, not only on a product—or technology—level, but all the decisions that go into running a company.”
  • To anticipate market movements. The more you can internally mirror the evolving market you’re aiming to change, the better you will manage it. “As mentioned, if you only hire people who fit your values and business model, you’re going to end up breeding groupthink and losing diversity of thought,” says Grant. “That’s a great way to ensure that you’ll be left in the dust as soon as your world changes around you, competitors enter the market, or new technologies develop. You need originals to keep bringing fresh ideas that can challenge your current business model, your assumptions and your principles. That accelerates your ability to adapt to—or better yet, initiate—change, as opposed to getting caught by surprise.”
  • To repurpose dissent. From the company name to a go-to-market plan, the early stages of a startup are rife with big decisions. A diversity of thought on the way forward will mean some ideas will get scrapped. The key is to not let the owners of those ideas get left behind, too. “After Toy Story, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull was worried that the animation studio would start following a predictable formula to get its big wins. So as not to lose its originality, he brought in outside director Brad Bird. Bird convened all the disgruntled Pixar employees—the ones who are always whining and complaining,” says Grant. “Instead of ushering them to the door, Bird’s instinct was that they’d be so dissatisfied that they’d think in new ways and try ideas that hadn’t been considered. He supplied a tiny budget and set them free. The result was a new illustration technique that’d keep Pixar’s standard, but could be executed more quickly and at a fraction of the cost. The proof in the pudding was one of Pixar’s blockbuster hits: The Incredibles.”

Read more at Quartz.