This old adage was first coined by Shakespeare some five hundred years ago in his play Hamlet. But I wonder how easy it is to follow this sage advice in a corporate working environment of values, mission statements and branding? How easy is it for us to stay true to our ‘original’* selves in the working world?
We explored this theme in our recent research on the Innovative Organisation. We asked how companies can combine original perspectives to unleash the great ideas that will ensure their future success. I also had the opportunity to hear first hand what it’s like to be an ‘original’ when I interviewed Jat Sahi, a former actor turned innovation guru at Fujitsu and it’s been a running theme of my year so far. While the concept of hiring originals to contribute diverse perspectives will seem logical to many of you, the part we see organisations stumble over is enabling their originals to stay that way.
So I wanted to share with my key takeaways for allowing originality to flourish:
- Don’t subject new talent to homogenising processes. This is something many of us are all guilty of, in overzealous on-boarding programmes that focus more on assimilating people into ‘the way we do things around here’ than on nurturing their originality. To genuinely foster differences of backgrounds, disciplines, culture and generations, organisations must promote inclusion, creating opportunities for people to share what is unique about them and combine their perspectives with others in a collaborative architecture.
- Focus on the why not the how. Jat Sahi spoke with me at length about how we have all become very good at executing work, but not very good at thinking about why we are doing it. It is the ‘why’ that helps us uncover the different motivations, perspectives and ideas within our teams. Thank you Jat!
- Maintain a balance between conformists and mavericks. Miriam Erez and Eitan Naveh of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology tell us that truly innovative teams are comprised of 10 to 20% of conformists. It’s this combination of originals who will challenge, disrupt and innovate and those who are adept at current ways of working that bring about the most successful new ideas.
Looking over the points above, I’m mindful that we don’t even need to look at people from different educational background or technical expertise to contribute originality of thought. With an eye to our upcoming Future of Work Research Consortium Theme Shifting Identities, all of us have elements which make us originals. So what I’d like you to do over the coming week is to dig back before you looked at your colleagues and emulated them, to before you finished your corporate grad scheme and even before your university told you how you should think. Think back to what makes you truly you, and make sure you bring that quality to your discussions with colleagues and the work that you do. Personally, I’ll be looking to enjoy the uncomfortable conversations and actively engage in ambiguous situations – two things I know I can bring to the table.
*Grant and Sandberg, Originals, 2016: define hiring originals as “intentionally hiring someone who would make peers feel uncomfortable; someone whose skills the company does not require and someone without previous experience in solving the type of problem at hand”.
 Miron-Spektor, E., Erez, M., & Naveh, E. (2011). The effect of conformist and attentive-to-detail members on team innovation: Reconciling the innovation Paradox. Academy of Management Journal, 54(4), 740-760