Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam M. Grant
The first book of the stack of business books I picked up at the Library last week that caught my attention was not about social enterprise exactly, but about business generally. A lot of people would like to know what it takes to be a success in business (as in life). Originals is a recent, and very good addition to this Grail quest.
One reason it’s good is that it is well researched. It’s not just one person’s opinion, but filled with real-world examples. The other reason is that it says things that are unexpected, almost surprising. This makes it refreshing. You feel like you are really learning something.
Grant takes on many of the assumptions you often hear about entrepreneurs, e.g. that they are fearless, lone wolves, who take big risks. Time after time, Grant shows that the essence of the entrepreneur is counter-intuitive and contradictory. One succeeded in getting investors for his start-ups by highlighting the reasons not to invest. Another, a woman at Apple, successfully challenged Steve Jobs from her position three management levels below. It is the entrepreneur’s willingness to go against the grain, to do what they believe in rather than what they think they “should” do, that makes all the difference.
Grant confirms other things we do assume about entrepreneurs. We tend to think of them as rule breakers, and sure ‘nuff Grant has examples: a security analyst who overturned the rule of secrecy at the CIA, a billionaire financial wizard who fired employees for failing to criticize him, and a TV executive who didn’t even work in comedy but saved a show nobody wanted, the enormously successful Seinfeld, from the cutting-room floor.
It’s not surprising that the book jacket has some flattering words by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell has built a stellar career out of just this sort of debunking based on in depth research, something so lacking in journalism these days.
I bet there are many examples that would prove the opposite of Grant’s theory that the key to entrepreneurial success is originality. Originality comes in many shapes and sizes, but often in business it is pretty simple: find or build a good product and work very, very hard. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about that until you consider that there are only just over a million businesses in Canada, about 40 per thousand people, or one for every 25 people. That makes the people who started them pretty rare. Barely more than one person in each high school classroom in the nation will start and run their own business.
Another interesting fact is that 75 per cent of all businesses in Canada are small businesses, over half of which have less than four employees. That means Originals is really talking about a very small pool of people who have enjoyed big success. While we like to read about what makes such folks tick, it’s not like there’s a magic formula that, if we could just discover it, would make us all into successful entrepreneurs. Books like Originals are more of a spectator sport, for the sheer pleasure of making sense of the world.
Are things different in the world of purpose-driven business? Does it take something other than originality to build a successful social enterprise? Those questions will have to wait until next time.
Robert Labossiere is a lawyer with Beamish and Associates and on the board of the Sioux Lookout Public Library.