5 Tips from Adam Grant on How to Unlearn and Rethink

May 25, 2021 Sarah Mulcahy

4-minute read

The word “unprecedented” has been used so much over this past year that it risks losing meaning. Unprecedented global pandemic. Unprecedented social unrest. And for organizations, unprecedented disruption.  

What we’re really talking about is old ways of working and solving problems don’t seem to match the current challenges we are facing. So in many ways, the release of Adam Grant’s fourth book, “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. In it, Grant argues that in a rapidly changing world, the ability to rethink and unlearn might matter even more than intelligence. 

Last week at Workhuman® Live Online, Grant joined Stephanie Mehta, editor in chief at Fast Company, to talk about his latest book and practical ways organizations and leaders can get more comfortable thinking again. Below are my top five takeaways from their conversation. 

1/ Think like a scientist. 

How do we become so stuck in familiar ways of thinking and solving problems? Grant referenced the trap coined by Canadian-American writer and professor Phil Tetlock of "thinking like a preacher, a prosecutor, and a politician." A preacher already knows the truth. A prosecutor is trying to win an argument. And a politician will just tell you what you want to hear.  

Instead, Grant suggested thinking like a scientist. That means, “you don't let your ideas become your identity. You value humility over pride, curiosity over conviction, and when you have an opinion, you realize that is just a hunch. It's a hypothesis waiting to be tested.”  

If you’re being honest about your people strategy and culture, are you thinking like a scientist, or falling into the preacher/prosecutor/politician trap? Are there places where you could add some experimentation and testing to discover better ways of working? 

2/ Practice brainwriting instead of brainstorming. 

This past year of remote and hybrid work has put a serious strain on team collaboration, and Grant suggested our approach to human connection in the form of group brainstorming is all wrong. Here are his three reasons why: 

  • Production blocking: Ideas get lost because we can’t all talk at once. 
  • Ego threat: People don’t share unconventional ideas for fear of looking bad.  
  • HiPPO effect: People just blindly agree with highest paid person’s opinion. 

Instead, Grant said we should practice brainwriting, where the team is given a prompt in advance of a meeting and individuals generate ideas independently. “Then you bring the group together to bring in the wisdom of crowds,” he said. That’s where you figure out which ideas have potential and “that's where human connection is really needed.” 

3/ Admit what you don’t know. 

Does your team operate under an explicit or implicit list of best practices? “It scares me whenever people talk about best practices, because the moment you declare a practice best, you're creating an illusion that there's an endpoint,” said Grant. Instead, commit to “searching for better practices.” That means you give people the freedom to test and learn in their day-to-day work. 

Another way to figure out your blind spots is to create what Grant called a challenge network. This is a group of “thoughtful critics” who are willing to give you the tough feedback you need to improve and get better. 

4/ Recognize culture carriers. 

Do you know who your culture carriers are – the people who live and breathe your mission and values? “One of the reasons I've been a Workhuman fan for a long time is a lot of people who are doing important work in organizations are going unrecognized and unnoticed,” said Grant. “A lot of the critical work people do, especially if it's not in their job description, is invisible to senior leaders. And it's one of the reasons why peer recognition programs are so important.”  

peer-to-peer recognition program gives everyone in the organization – not just senior leaders – the ability to recognize and reward good work. Some of the invisible work Grant mentioned could be related to onboarding new hires, recruiting, or just engaging at a high level. All these behaviors add to your culture, but they take up time and energy. “We need to do a much better job recognizing and valuing that work, and also empowering those culture carriers,” he said. 

5/ Rethink your privilege.  

Grant said this past year has pushed him to reconsider his take on privilege, especially after learning from psychologist John Amaechi. “The conversation with him really deepened my understanding of this eye-opening and assumption-shattering observation he made,” said Grant. The observation was that white privilege isn’t necessarily about having an advantage, but that it’s “the absence of an impediment, that you haven’t had to necessarily prove yourself in ways that people who might look different have had to because of all the biases and prejudice that exists in our society.” Grant cited this example as one way rethinking could be leveraged to continue advancing work in the DE&I space.  

Looking for more Workhuman Live Online content? Check out more sessions from this year’s event here

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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