Back To All Stories
Adam Grant - event overview banner

Adam Grant: How to master the leadership skill of rethinking

Masterclass summary with business book Think Again author Adam Grant

Adam Grant - event overview banner

Adam Grant has a story about 'the boiling frog syndrome'.

You know - frog slowly boils to death, too stupid to jump out of a slowly-heated pot.

But Grant, author of Think Again, tells today’s Growth Faculty masterclass the story is a myth. 

Research shows a frog will jump out when too hot. 

The myth pervades because too few of us "rethink" - that is, think like scientists, he says.

So let's take a look at the key lessons from Grant's Growth Faculty masterclass The Critical Art of Rethinking (moderated by Dr Kirstin Ferguson) and his #1 New York Times bestseller Think Again.

 4 steps to rethinking

1.     Avoid escalation of commitment. Think like a scientist.

2.     Build a challenge network: those who tell truths instead of comforting lies.

3.     Create psychological safety.

4.     Get the best ideas on the table.


Leaders should think like scientists

Adam Grant wishes more leaders from all industries would think like scientists.

In Think Again, the Originals author explains how scientists:

·       Are constantly aware of the limits of their understanding.

·       Doubt what they know.

·       Are curious about what they don’t know.

·       Update their views based on new data.

Grant says in rapidly changing times, it’s vital business leaders learn to do the same.

It's the skill of rethinking and a key component of good leadership in 2021.


Successful start-ups from scientific thinking

It's hard not to love what we create.

Many of us fall into the 'escalation of commitment' trap.

We double down when our plan isn't going as hoped.

Ego and emotion kick in.

The entrepreneur experiment

Grant tells of a European experiment where start-up entrepreneurs were broken into two groups.

One group were taught to use scientific thinking.

The control group were given business advice only.

In the scientific-thinking group:

·       Their strategy was a theory.

·       They interviewed customers to help develop hypotheses.

·       Their minimum viable products and prototypes were experiments to test hypotheses.

This group pivoted twice as often as the control group, who stayed wedded to their original strategies and products.

And, after a year, the “rethinking” entrepreneurs brought in 40x the revenue of the control group!


Learning to disagree with ourselves

Rethinking isn’t just disagreeing with others; it’s learning to disagree with ourselves.

It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong.

Otherwise, we fall into:

·       Cult leader mode: We’re never wrong.

·       Preacher mode: Changing our mind is a mark of moral weakness.

·       Prosecutor mode: Allowing ourselves to be persuaded differently is admitting defeat.

·       Politician mode: We flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks.



Imposter syndrome is no bad thing

So, where do we start?

Adam Grant says it starts with intellectual humility – knowing what we don’t know.

 (Even imposter syndrome might be beneficial, as confidence can make us complacent.)

Then, it’s about detachment, separating your opinions from your identity, and your past self from your current self.

Finally, it’s learning to be okay with conflict. It’s surrounding yourself with boat-rockers, not bootlickers, says Grant.


Disagreeable Givers vs Agreeable Takers

Most bosses want to be around agreeable people.

But Grant says agreeable people, whether givers or takers, might not help you learn.

·       An agreeable giver is a people pleaser.

·       An agreeable taker is a faker.

Of course, a disagreeable taker means politics (so avoid).

But a disagreeable giver is an asset and should be part of your “challenge network.”

These are truth tellers who care about the company, its people, and the environment they work in. They give the feedback leaders desperately need to hear. 

Importantly, they invite you to 'think again', says Grant.


Helping others to rethink

You can view arguments as a war, or you can view them as a dance.

It’s a dance of self-persuasion, says Grant.

“We can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better off helping them find their own motivation to change,” he explains further in Think Again.

One way to do this is by “motivational interviewing”:

·       Start with an attitude of humility and curiosity.

·       Ask open-ended questions and listen to their answers.

·       Be genuinely eager to find out more.

·       Affirm the person’s desire and ability to change.

“When people ignore advice, it isn’t always because they disagree with it,” Adam Grant says, “Sometimes they’re resisting the sense of pressure and the feeling that someone else is controlling their decision.”

He counsels us to talk to people to gain insight into the nuances of their views.


Get the best ideas on the table. Try killing the company

Not all people are comfortable airing problems and sharing suggestions.

Adam Grant recommends a technique in Lisa Bodell’s book FutureThink.

You ask your employees to kill the company.

Generating ideas to kill the company throws up your threats and weaknesses. People drill into ideas they would never voice, says Grant.

And, instead of a suggestion box – try glasses brand Warby Parker’s problem box.

Collect problems, invite everybody to rate in importance, then solve the critical ones.

Saying “I was wrong”

Saying "I was wrong" is one of the most powerful statements in the English language, says Grant.

It allows more challenge thinking.

Grant says one Nobel prizewinning author looked happy when told he was wrong.

He told Grant "I like finding out I was wrong, because now I am less wrong than I was before.”

The quicker you can find out you are wrong, the faster you can move towards getting it right. 


Avoid Hippos

Hippos are those High Income Person’s Opinions. They drown out important views.

To counter Hippos:

·       Adam Grant favours the leader-speaks-last rule. Ask others to weigh in before you do. 

·       If you have a Hippo in your meeting, amplify the idea of another person. It will give it more weight.

·       In a virtual setting, encourage use of the chat box. It’s a great tool for introverts.


Learning cultures create rethinking cultures

Adam Grant says that in learning cultures, the norm is for people:

·     To know what they don’t know;

·     Doubt their existing practices;

·     Stay curious about new routines to try out.

He says evidence shows that in learning cultures, organisations innovate more and make fewer mistakes.

Feeling safe at work (psychological safety) and being allowed to experiment at work (process accountability) are both needed to create a learning zone.

·       Psychological safety erases the fear of challenging authority.

·       Process accountability leads people to think again about the best practices in their workplace.

“A good process is grounded in deep thinking and rethinking, enabling people to form and express independent opinions.”


Avoiding languishing

Adam Grant admits to languishing during the pandemic.

He says he’s found himself playing Words with Friends late into the night.

Grant says it’s “a sense of stagnation, blah, meh, could be bingeing a TV show….it feels like the world has been stagnating.”

His advice: “Name the emotion. You can tame the emotion.”

·       Name the emotion (languishing)

·       Use reason: ‘Okay, I’ve languished before. What got me through in the past was……’

·       Find others who are languishing and give them advice. Leaders should know that clear roles and clear goals work better than happy hours and team drinks.



Like the frog, we need to learn how to jump out of hot water.

Thinking like a scientist (Adam Grant's 'rethinking") is the best way we stay open to possibilities.

So, try these 3 steps to think more like a scientist:

·       Entertain possible selves – not just your one identity.

·       Develop hypotheses about scenarios, don't think of them as set plans.

·       Question what you do (and think) daily.

“The simplest way to start rethinking our options is to question what we do daily.” - Adam Grant

If you'd like to increase your professional development why not consider becoming a member of The Growth Faculty? One membership, unlimited access to 30 live virtual Time For Transformation masterclasses and the best live virtual events - PLUS year-round leadership content On Demand with videos, podcasts and book summaries. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. Access $4350+ value for just $398 AUD. See who's up next.