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How to get the best out of original thinkers during complex change

How to get the best out of original thinkers during complex change

Our businesses are crying out for creative, original thought. But we are training it out of our children. And developing management practices that inhibit it.  

In this post, I will look at how the practices of change management are hindering original thought. And preventing the people who can best help the change succeed from being involved.  

Why are original thinkers so much more creative than the average human being? 

This is the question that has made Adam Grant famous. He's arguably the leading organisational psychologist in the world today. The youngest tenured professor at Wharton. The top-rated professor for five straight years.

He's one of the world's 25 most influential management thinkers.The author of two New York Times best-selling books. And a number one national best seller. 

Damn! That's some CV. 

His work shows how people become creative and collaborative. A vital theme for today's leaders and managers. His insights on the characteristics of original thinkers are brilliant. 

Adam Grant's TED Talk on the characteristics of original thinkers

If you don't have time to listen to the talk, the summary is simple.
  As he's an organizational physiologist, Adam Grant's work parallels original thinking with innovative business leadership. He shows how original thinkers: 

  1. Procrastinate and make backup plans just in case
  2. Doubt the quality of the idea and fear it won't be successful
  3. Have lots of bad ideas while coming up with a good one

This, of course, challenges notions that leaders are successful thanks to a bunch of personality traits.
 It humanises them. Reveals their weaknesses and frailties. Great leaders aren't super-efficient, hyper-confident geniuses. They are just like you and me. Suffer the same doubts and fears. The only difference is how they overcome them. 

It's a massive kick in the face to the business guru market. Which tries to teach you self-help leadership techniques. Gives you a bunch of characteristics to develop. And a list of things to do before breakfast. 

It's not about how you are. But how you think. Original thinkers need space and time to (a) develop ideas, (b) test the quality of the idea, (c) work through the complexities of the idea and (d) have new ones if a, b & c lead to a dead end.

All excellent insights and great takeaways in themselves. I would, however, like to draw attention to a limitation in the speech. Successful original thought does not just equate to business success via innovation. There are many ways to measure the impact of original thought. You cannot reduce the success of original thought to a single metric. 

As Van Gogh would then not have been original.

This is more a problem of the speech than of Adam Grant's wider work. He tailored it to what the audience wanted to hear. Creativity and innovation in leadership. 

But it does point to a wider theme in the business content world. We have become so obsessed with emulating heroic leaders, we fail to see how such insights affect our everyday practice. How people who aren't really interested in being leaders can still be original thinkers. And how organisations can tap into their skills to do good work.

Adam Grant's findings can be powerfully applied to the practice of change management. We just need to draw a few connecting lines. Perhaps via some original thought for ourselves. 

Why procrastination and late adoption to change have the same behavioural pattern

The graph below is Adam Grant's bell curve of creative thinking and original thought. He found that pre-crastinators (people who beat deadlines by weeks) and extreme procrastinators (people who did things last minute) were not creative. Had no original thoughts. In contrast, those that procrastinated to a degree had lots of original thought. 

Low at the extreme pre-crastination and extreme procrastination axes. High in the middle of the bell curve. 

The picture below is the classic adoption to change bell curve. On the far left, those who are enthusiastic about the change. In the middle, those that aren't convinced. On the right, those that resist. Looks pretty similar, doesn't it.

Change management practice follows a very precise path when it comes to managing the human side of change: 

  1. Firstly, identify those on the left and tap into their enthusiasm. The people committed to the change and bewitched by the idea
  2. Secondly, persuade those in the middle to adapt and adopt. The peopleconfused by the change and bewildered by the idea. 
  3. Thirdly, prevent the negative influence of those on the right. The peoplecynical about the change and bothered by the idea. 

Committed, confused or cynical. Bewitched, bewildered or bothered.Very clear labels that define how you should treat each group. Embrace, train, ignore. Pump up, persuade, prevent. 

And now for the "what ifs".

What if the way we categorise people during change is wrong? What if committed and bewitched early adopters are incapable of original thought? What if they are attracted to change because they find meaning in beating deadlines and delivering milestones? 

What if others resist because that's how their brains are wired? What if they are resisting not because they don't believe in the change or trust management? But because they can't act any other way? 

More importantly, what if all our original thinkers are sitting on top of the bell curve? What if it isn't just procrastination, but original thinking and creative reflection about the change? What if tapping into their insights can dramatically improve the change? Make it more suited to the exact requirements of the organisation? 

If that's the case, then our model of change disables and ignores originality. Original and creative thinkers get lumped in with those that want solutions and convenience.  Which is precisely the opposite of what we want. 

Note that I'm not saying that everyone at the top of the bell curve is an original thinker. 

Many will be confused or bewildered. Many will need coaching and training. But not all of them!

Others will be able to contribute in meaningful and innovative ways.Help the change become more than the standard top-down model. Shape it and adapt it to fit the complex requirements of the organisational environment. 

The question is "how do we identify them?"

How idea-doubt takes place in changing environments of top-down control

In Adam Grant's TED talk, he outlines how originals approach the creative process.
 The slide below is how he explains it.

In a bit more detail, the process is thus:

  1. Firstly, you have an idea and get enthused by it.
  2. You realise making the idea work in practice is tough and complex.
  3. You begin to think the idea is rubbish.
  4. You begin to think it's not the idea that's rubbish, but that you are rubbish. 
  5. After rethinks and redrafts, you begin to think the idea might be OK.
  6. As you work through the complexities and iron out the wrinkles, you start thinking the idea is great again.

Adam Grant argues that original thinkers do not do Step 4. They never start to doubt themselves, only the idea. 

This is a vital distinction!

Some middle curve people become confused and bewildered about the idea, and thus become confused and bewildered about themselves. Others doubt the idea, but not themselves. 

Doubt about the Idea and Doubt about Self

Doubt about the idea and self helps explain the rise in emotional and psychological stress some people experience during change.  People no longer trust their carefully constructed self-image. Of which part is the belief they can do their job and do it well. As that image breaks down, they break down.

Such people defend against this self-doubt in all kinds of ways. They can suffer total self-image collapse, which can result in emotional or psychological breakdown. Floods of tears. Anger. Relationship troubles at home or at work. At extremes, some can develop genuine psychological illnesses. Take up drinking. Even become suicidal. 

With enough self-doubt in a tightly knit group, a social reaction can occur. The group can bond over the idea-doubt and use each other to alleviate self-doubt. This can produce a hardened belief that the old way of doing things is correct. That the new way is stupid. That they are the clever ones. And justified in rejecting it. 

No change manager worth his salt will have failed to notice these individual and group reactions to change.

The important takeaway is this. People who suffer self-doubt will either be suffering emotionally and psychologically. Or expressing how wonderful they are and how stupid management is. Self-doubt criticises or emphaises the quality of people, not the quality of the idea. 

Doubt about the Idea but not about Self

Those who only doubt the idea have a problem. A really quite complex and daunting one.

  1. Firstly, they have nobody to express these doubts to because everyone's energy is tied up dealing with the self-doubters. Their idea-doubt gets thrown in and confused with the destructive self-doubt. 
  2. Secondly, the change bell curve lumps original thinkers in with people who want "solutions and convenience." They are damned as not being original thinkers by the theory of change.
  3. Thanks to the above, leaders and managers are predisposed NOT TO LISTEN to creative critique of the change. Critique, no matter how useful or constructive, gets lumped in with destructive negativity. 

What do original thinkers do? How do you express idea-doubt when those with power are invested in the idea? And disinclined to listen to critique about it because of the negativity of the self-doubters? 

You use irony and ironic communication. 

Irony has been used to challenge hardened ideas in complex, changing environments for over two millennia. Ever since Socrates employed it to underpin his challenging critiques.

Socratic irony: a pose of ignorance assumed in order to entice others into making statements that can then be challenged.

Irony is a highly sophisticated form of thinking and communicating,often described as the highest form of cognition. The cognitive challenge of working out indirect meaning fires neurons in unusual parts of the brain. Which can kick start creative and synthetic thinking. 

Irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and black humour always accompany change, especially cultural change. This occurs at organisational or nation-state level. It doesn't manifest in the Socratic form, as a direct challenge, but in a social form. People express critique of bad ideas to each other through ironic communication. The indirect communication bonds those "in the know" while stopping those who aren't "in the know" getting the critique. 

Those who are not threatened, and open to critique and new ideas respond positively. Those who are convinced they are right and shouldn't be challenged because of their role or position don't. 

Over twenty-five years of organisational research into culture change have repeatedly illustrated this phenomenon. And two and a half thousand years of Western philosophy, literature and cultural theory have said much the same thing. 

Why it is important to listen to bad ideas in complex, changing environments

This is the scenario I'd like you to imagine. You've delivered the initial steps of the change. The milestone enthusiasts and deadline addicts have all signed up. You've crossed the chasm. 

You are happy that the technicalities of the change have been delivered. But are struggling to address the environmental. You are having to coach and train a lot of people to understand what is going on. Help others cope with the stresses. And deal with snarky and sniping remarks about absurdities and inconsistencies in the new way of working.

Ambiguous change environment 101!

The temptation is to treat all groups the same. See all of them as people struggling to cope with the change. Who are displaying this struggle in different ways. Emotionally. Psychologically. And sarcastically. 

Interpreting ironic critique as sarcasm is your own self-doubt surfacing. You are treating idea-doubt as sarcastic critique of the self. Critique of you. Which causes you to exhibit psychological defences. And treat those legitimately criticising the idea as you treat those who struggle to cope with it.But note:

  Irony and sarcasm are very different! 

If you can get beyond seeing sarcasm, you'll start to see how the critique is of value. How it reveals absurdities and uncovers complexities. Shows you things that need fixing. Opens a space to correct them. And to correct them, you need:

Bad ideas! Lots and lots of bad ideas!

Adam Grant shows us that original thinkers have lots and lots of ideas. Many, many of them are bad ideas. But they aren't all bad ideas. And you only need one good idea. 

And he shows that the greatest originals fail the most. But they also try the most. Not every idea works. Not every solution sticks. But because they only doubt ideas and not themselves, they try, try and try again. 

This insight takes us away from the emotionality and psychological tensions surrounding change. And towards the practice of complexity theory. Which means we are starting to think about the practice of ideation during change. 

Change environments are complex. We cannot rely on best or good practice in such environments. We need new and innovative ideas. And people that can generate them. 

Complex problems require emergent practices. You must create and test practices without fear of failure. So you can quickly reject bad ideas and identify good ones. And move out of uncertain and ambiguous complexity. And into an environment you can understand and control.

This is exceptionally difficult to do if you develop a model that excludes the people who best do it. 

This is where irony and originality merge. When you develop an idea, ironic thought quickly sees gaps, paradoxes, ambiguities and uncertainties. Opens up a meaningful space for creative and original solutions to germinate. A process for evaluating how well they work. And a method of deciding which solution to move forward with. 

  1. It senses out possibilities
  2. It probes them for gaps and fractures
  3. It responds with critique or enthusiasm
Complexity theory at its purest! 

The people that think creatively during complex change are not originals in the Adam Grant sense. They might never do amazing and spectacular things. Like create Space-X. Write symphonies. Or design iPods. 

But they do think originally about their organisational environment. How it can be improved. How technologies can be made more efficient or user-friendly.  And our flawed change models are too often excluding them. 


Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?
Culture eats strategy for breakfast! Doesn't it?

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


Consulting on change, transformation, culture, organisational narrative, innovation and creativity, and communications to private and public sector organizations and entities.

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