Rethinking Business—And Education

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Monday, April 12, 2021
By Sharon Shinn
Graphic recording by Tanya Gadsby, creative director of Fuselight Creative
In his keynote speech at ICAM, Wharton professor Adam Grant discusses how to take new approaches to old questions.

How can businesses stay relevant, get the most out of their employees, and thrive in the midst of chaos? Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has explored all of those topics in his recent book Think Again, and he offered additional insights during his keynote speech at AACSB’s virtual International Conference and Annual Meeting last week.

He first offered three suggestions for ways leaders can elicit the best work out of their employees:

First, provide a sense of psychological safety. Let people know they can take risks without being punished—and let them know they can talk about their errors so they can learn from their mistakes, not repeat them. People who feel psychologically safe will also bring up small problems before they become huge disruptions for the organization.

One way to encourage people to speak up is to follow an exercise Lisa Bodell proposes in her book Kill the Company. In that example, employees list all the ways competitors could destroy the organization—and then come up with ways to prevent those catastrophes from happening.

Second, get the best ideas on the table. Group brainstorming doesn’t generate as many innovative ideas as independent thought does. That’s because in group situations, people are reluctant to speak up and look stupid—or because they bow to the HIPPO effect, the desire to agree with the “highest-paid person’s opinion.” Leaders will get better ideas if they provide a prompt, give individuals time to write down their ideas, then have the whole team discuss and evaluate the suggestions. In other words, ask people to engage in “brainwriting” rather than “brainstorming.”

Third, think like a scientist. Don’t be a preacher, already convinced that you’re right; don’t be a proselytizer, certain that others are wrong. Instead, create a hypothesis about your business, test it, see where it fails, and try again. “Scientists look for reasons they might be wrong. They surround themselves with people who challenge their solutions,” says Grant.

Don’t be a preacher, already convinced that you’re right; don’t be a proselytizer, certain that others are wrong. Instead, be a scientist who creates and tests hypotheses about the business.

In his keynote speech, Grant also considered how academic leaders might rethink business education. His first suggestion was to find ways to bring the advantages of remote learning into the in-person classroom. For instance, he noted that when the pandemic forced him to teach online, he found it extremely helpful to use chat functions to encourage greater student interaction. He began having students add hashtags—such as #burningquestion—to indicate what they wanted to talk about during synchronous debates. This helped him guide conversations in ways he would like to continue in the in-person classroom.

He also suggested that business schools create two educational tracks to keep their programs relevant. A one-year, mostly online track would cater to “career enhancers” who just want to acquire a skill set and an alumni network; a three-year immersive track would appeal to students who want to explore entirely new career options.

Finally, he recommended that teachers stay open to revamping their courses. As an example, he mentioned that because his own teaching style is based on evidence-based arguments, it often doesn’t give students much room to challenge him. But recently students accused him of not bringing his “rethinking” principles to his own classroom. When he invited them to share what they would do differently, ideas poured in—some of which he has already implemented. For instance, students who disagree with one of his conclusions can create mini-presentations or TikTok videos that detail opposing points of view, supporting their conclusions with evidence or interviews from experts.

Grant admits that it might be harder to change the culture of an entire hierarchical institution than a single classroom, but it can be done. “You don’t always have to go to the most powerful person in the company and say, ‘I think you’re a moron, and here’s why,’” he says. But it’s possible to get even top leaders to start reconsidering their operations. One way to begin the conversation is to simply say, “Have we thought about this?”—and then see where that leads.

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
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