11 Reasons Not to Read ‘Originals’

How to maintain our higher ed status quo.

February 25, 2016

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Published in February of 2016.

Originals is a book about how to change the status quo.

If you are a higher ed person, here are 11 reasons why you should not read Originals:

#1 - Your college or university will succeed best by doing the same things, in the same way, for the next 25 years as your institution has done in the past 25 years.

#2 - Today, every educator at your institution enjoys high levels of autonomy, status, and resources.

#3 - The pedagogical approach of every course at your college or university aligns with current research on learning.

#4 - Neither the costs of running your school, or prices that students pay to attend your institution, are a concern.

#5 - Your school is able to provide access to all qualified learners that wish to attend.

#6 - All of your students are able to graduate within a reasonable time.

#7 - Your students, when they graduate, will be entering a workforce that is similar to that which existed when the educational approach of your institution was designed.

#8 - There are adequate resources and people at your school to accomplish its core functions.

#9 - Current demographic, economic, and competitive trends offer little threat to the continued sustainability and relevance of your institution.

#10 - The faculty, staff and student composition (along income, race, and gender dimensions) of your institution matches and reflects that of the community that your school serves.

#11 - You are confident that your school is an engine of social change, rather than a mechanism to reinforce social and economic inequality.

For everyone who works at colleges or universities that meet the 11 conditions above - do not read Originals.

For everyone else, Originals should be the next book that you and your colleagues read, share, and discuss.

One of the lessons that Grant shares is that to change the status quo we need to first identify it. We then need to understand that existing conditions and structures are neither god given or immutable, and in fact exist because they benefit (or benefited) someone. 

Once the conditions of the status quo have been identified, anyone hoping to drive change must articulate an alternative vision for the future.

The brilliance of Originals is that Grant is unwilling to offer any foolproof algorithm or simple 5 step process for leading organizational change. All of Grant’s ideas and suggestions are grounded in the rigorous social science research that he explores.  He is unwilling to make suggestions based solely on the examples of individual change leaders. All of their actions are examined in the context of the evidence.

Grant’s reliance on evidence over anecdote leads him to some surprising conclusions about leading change. For instance, the best strategy for anyone wanting to drive an organization towards a different future is often to be upfront and vocal about the flaws in the plan. Change requires persuasion, and particularly in a university setting those who feel need to be persuaded to support the change have been professionalized into the values and norms of constructive criticism. Academics are excellent at picking apart arguments - you may be better off preemptively picking apart your own.

Another powerful insight about leading change from Originals is who should actually lead the change. It may be that the most passionate people about achieving a different future would be better off stepping back from leading. Pushing other people forward - particularly those that have in the past been most critical of the change ideas - is often the best strategy to catalyze change.

My sense is that the work of higher ed leaders is now the work of leading change. The imperative to rapidly evolve our institutions, while simultaneously staying true to our core values, is the primary challenge of today’s academic leader. 

I worry that those of us working to lead change in higher ed are not well-enough equipped or trained to succeed.

Reading and discussing Originals may be the single best investment of our time that our community could make.

What higher ed status quo do you believe needs changing?

What are you reading?



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