Come Original You Got to Come Original

I come to praise Adam Grant, not to bury him. Sure – it would be easy to point out that a book titled “Originals” is actually unoriginal – more a conglomeration of interesting anecdotes, psychological principles, and business case studies then cohesive or unique work.  And of course, the fact that the very first lines and much of the content of the book refer to Warby Parker might make some Wharton students wince, as we’ve heard the Warby Parker more than few times. And yes, when I emailed Grant for an interview, I was redirected to his press assistant who treated me like regular media and couldn’t schedule me with a professor at a school I’m paying a quarter million dollars to get a degree from. But I digress! Originals is actually an interesting read that is worth your time.

The book derives its strength not from any overarching thesis, but from aggregating a plethora of stories and studies apposite to the conduct of business. My personal favorite is the browser study.

Economist Michael Houseman was conducting a study examining customer service agents stayed in their jobs longer than others. He had data from over 30k employees, his hypothesis was that empoyees with a history of job-hopping would be more likely to leave their jobs sooner. When he found that was not the case, he started to looking at other random variables. The factor he found most determinant as to whether an employee would quit or not was what browser they logged into when applying for their job. Employees who used Firefox or Chrome stuck with their jobes 15% longer that those who used IE or Safari.  He kept looking and found that these employees were also 19% less likely to miss work, and also gleaned higher performance ratings. Houseman did some studies to see if these workers were merely more tech savvy, but that was not the case. What accounted for the differences in performance was that users of these browsers had to download them (they did not come preinstalled in their computers like IE or Safari). Thus, browser use selected for “initiative”, and employees with this initiative fared better at their jobs. The unoriginal employees who stuck to their default browser fared worse.

You may have heard of this study, as it is taught in Wharton classes, but I promise the work includes studies you have not heard of, and presents them in interesting ways. It’s full of valuable tidbits, which is why it is a solid buy. However, I’d be remiss if I did not bring up a serious flaw. In a Warby Parker (sigh) anecdote, Grant recounts how the founders initially wanted to sell a pair of glasses that typically retailed for $500 for $45, they were given a bit of Smart Pricing advice:  “a marketing expert warned them that their costs would increase – and that price was viewed as sign of quality.”  The “marketing professor expert” who dispensed the advice critical to making everyone’s favorite startup successful is, of course, Wharton’s own Jagmohan Raju, who is, in my mind, the best professor at UPenn. Not mentioning him by name seems like professional malpractice.

But wait! Maybe I’m not making an honest critique – maybe I’m nitpicking in order to sound smart. After all, Grant cites multiple studies questioning the veracity of book reviewers. Teresa Amabile asked respondents to judge the intelligence of a book reviewer by showing them one of essentially the same two reviews of the same book. The only difference was that one review had negative adjectives and the other had positive adjectives – all other language was exactly the same. Yet people rated the negative reviewer as much more intelligent. People assume it takes brain to be critical.  Perhaps that is why, as Grant points out, many early reviews of the greatest works of literature still had one-or-two sentences which were negative.


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