Adam Grant Introduces Summit Audience to Scientific Thinking, the HiPPO Effect, and More

By Susan Paley


Strategy Development Online Article

Adam Grant does not want directors to misunderstand what he’s suggesting. He is not encouraging leaders of America’s corporations to don a white lab coat and lean over a microscope, play-acting as a scientist. And he certainly is not suggesting that they take steps to actually kill—as in literally demolish—their own companies.

What Grant—organizational psychologist, bestselling author, and top-rated Wharton professor—did want his audience of directors to take away from his kick-off presentation at NACD Summit 2021 is this: it’s time to rethink and unlearn much of what leaders assume to be true. He wanted directors to adopt a scientist’s thinking patterns, relentlessly update forecasts, and run more experiments. And, yes, that includes contemplating on a regular, organized basis what it would take to kill their companies during what Grant dubs “pre-mortems.”

A high-energy tee-up to five days of discussion about the future of the boardroom, Grant’s October 4 session invited directors to take tangible actions to transform their businesses and provided three provocative steps to upend their fundamental business assumptions.

1. Think Like a Scientist

Grant wanted business leaders to not only create a supportive learning environment at their organizations. He also wanted them to schedule time to unlearn and rethink. “Don’t let ideas become your identity,” he implored at the virtual event.

At one Italian start-up, Grant told the audience, leaders were assigned to two groups: a control group and a “scientific thinking group” trained to view each product launch as an experiment, a chance to test their hypotheses. The scientific thinking group brought in 40 times the revenue of the control group. Their willingness to pivot made all the difference.

Too often, leaders embody the role of preacher, prosecutor, politician, or even cult leader, said the Wharton professor. He’s observed that people typically don’t want to be wrong and will die on the hill trying to be right. He urged leaders to liberate themselves from that trap. Adopting a scientist’s methodology, Grant said, “Look for reasons you might be wrong as [much as] reasons why you must be right.”

In the boardroom, Grant invited directors to use this method when considering CEO candidates amid board member disagreement. At the board table and in the C-Suite, leaders must commit to challenging each other, to asking a colleague certain of their opinion, “What evidence would make you change your mind?” Rather than continuing to see arguments as a chance to win, Grant implored, we should view them as a chance to learn. Approach disagreements as dances, not as battles.

To Grant, companies such as Blockbuster, Borders, and BlackBerry lost their hold on the market not because their leaders weren’t great thinkers, but because they weren’t quick enough to think again, to question the assumptions that served them in the past.

2. Update Your Forecasts

The difference between success and failure in any given decision, action, or plan? Frequently, Grant said, it’s the number of possible futures considered. If there are more than two, the likelihood of a win skyrockets. The key to victory is not intelligence or even grit. It’s how many forecasts are sketched out and how often they are updated.

And speed does count. When companies make a forecast and reapproach it with the scientist’s mindset, seeking where they may be wrong, they multiply their chances of landing a better, more accurate plan—one that can foresee black swans and mind the information they’ve not paid sufficient attention to. Grant suggested leaders rethink the forecasts the same day they formulate them.

Don’t have time to try this full tilt? Each additional forecast beyond the initial one or two increases the chances of accuracy exponentially, according to Grant’s findings.

3. Create Psychological Safety

Everyone has heard it said, “Don’t come to me with a problem unless you bring a solution.”

What does that create? A culture in which people are afraid to point out a problem unless they’ve figured out what can be done to fix it, Grant insisted. The result: a leadership team that never hears about what’s going wrong.

Once again, Grant invited the audience to upend their basic assumptions and replace the perennial “suggestion box” with a “problem box” to which people can submit observed trouble spots. Rather than solely having a reporting mechanism for technology bugs, add ones for “culture bugs” and “management bugs.” Grant emphasized that for meaningful success, “We need to hear unpleasant truths instead of comforting lies.” Psychological safety creates an environment inclusive of diversity of thought. It provides a fertile ground for folks to think again.

On a similar note, Grant discourages brainstorming en masse and on the spot, as it demands people voice fantastic contributions at the drop of a hat. Instead, he encouraged “brainwriting”: give people the challenge in advance, and have them come to the meeting with ideas, ready to discuss and debate. Encourage employees to put these ideas in the chat box during the first few minutes of a virtual meeting, and it’ll work wonders, he said. Above all, Grant wants people to work hard to defeat the “HiPPO” effect, in which the group reflexively bows to the “highest-paid person’s opinion.”

The target audience for Grant’s advice stretches from operational management teams to the boardroom. A brainstorming exercise he encourages boards to engage in is “kill the company,” created and propagated by founder and CEO of FutureThink Lisa Bodell. In this exercise, directors have a go at dreaming up ways in which the organization might be put out of business. Why have only post-mortems, he wondered, when we can convene pre-mortems?

Turns out that if leaders make it a habit to reimagine and rethink, are willing to update forecasts relentlessly, and create processes for really listening to their people, new levels of success are within reach every day.

Susan Paley
Susan Paley is vice president of the NACD chapter network and executive sponsor of NACD Board Search. She is a former television script writer and producer and certified as a leadership coach.