The academic world exists many miles in the sky. Several academics I know, who are among the most respected management professors in the US/ Australia/ Singapore, say that the world of academics has got so distanced from the real world of business and work that often they feel the articles they write (and read) in academic journals are just voices in an echo chamber. The smarter academics make special effort to stay connected with the non-academic world through consulting, board positions, MDPs and so on.

In this context it is great that we also have professors like Adam Grant. He is a Professor of Organisational Psychology at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, where he is often the top-rated professor. Obviously, he writes and publishes in highly respected peer-reviewed journals. But he also writes for lesser mortals like us. Full disclosure. I am a fan. I have devoured his books Originals and Think Again. I have listened to his podcasts Work/Life With Adam Grant and Re-Thinking; he also makes an occasional appearance on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast and the two make an awesome combination. So when I was given a chance to read and review Hidden Potential, Adam Grant’s new book, I did not need even the gentlest of nudges.

Continuing the theme of his previous books, this book too is about ‘The Science of Achieving Greater Things’. How can we get better and getting better? The first section is about ‘Skills of Character’. The overarching theme in the first section is the need for each of us to become a ‘sponge’. There is even a chapter that has the intriguing title ‘Human Sponges – Building the Capacity to Absorb and Adapt’. I was delighted to read this section, especially because I wrote a book on a similar topic a few years ago (Sponge – Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients). Sea sponge is reported to be among the oldest inhabitants on earth. They don’t have a digestive system but live through absorbing what is good and rejecting what is not needed. Adam Grant’s hypothesis is that we can get better only if we are able to embrace the discomfort of learning and find the sweet spot between flawed and flawless.

Overcoming obstacles

The second section is about Structures of Motivation, or building scaffolding to overcome obstacles. We can get better only if we are able to build scaffolding to take us up; expect no miracles. Progress may not be straightforward and you may have to take a roundabout path to make forward progress. The chapter on group learning demolishes the concept of ‘brainstorming’, saying that allowing voices to speak makes the loudest voice dominate. Not everyone in the room is an extrovert. The introverts tend to keep quiet.

It is often better, Adam Grant argues, to let every single person give their ideas separately. Pool them as the next step. Anonymously, share ideas in the group. Develop and evaluate ideas individually before doing a group think on the selected ideas. Adam Grant calls this Brainwriting. It is a process that makes sure all ideas are brought to the table and all voices are brought into the conversation. I have often seen a good moderator of a brainstorming session do this. But Adam Grant’s idea of insisting that each person contributes individually is indeed worth considering, even if you are running a brainstorming session.

The last section charts a different path compared to the first two. This section titled ‘Systems of Opportunity,’ has three broad themes. The first chapter is about how to ensure every child gets ahead. Here the author takes us to the tiny country of Finland and the practices that it embraced to ensure that its school students come out on top in all global tests. One of the lessons resonated with me: the idea of making teachers stay with young kids across grades. From my own experience with Vidya Mandir, Mylapore, I can vouch for the role our school teachers played in spotting talent and offering a gentle hand of support.

With teachers continuing across grades, kids got mentored across years. Something that seems Utopian in our modern day class rooms with over 60 students per class and an abysmal teacher-student ratio. The last chapter should be a must read for anyone who is in the job of hiring talent. The chapter recounts the story of Jose Hernandez, and how he had to apply numerous times before he got an interview call at NASA, his dream organisation. Why? Simply because the selection process did not adequately look at the life experience and background of the applicants. Jose, on his part, did not realise that what was obvious for him (the fact that he was from a poor family with a Mexican American background), the struggles, the need to self-support education, could be of importance to the selection team. And the selectors did not seek those out. In most organisations our selection process focuses not on the journey but on the achievements. Hence, we are oblivious to the struggles and challenges faced, even though they may have a great implication to the job to be done.

Adam Grant’s book Hidden Potential is a great read, filled with numerous examples, real life stories, academic research [simplified for the lay reader] and is a wholesome read for those aspiring to get better and for those who are trying to hire the unpolished gems, the rare talent.

(The reviewer is an award winning bestselling author of eleven books. His book ‘Sponge – Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients’ showcases examples from his life in advertising)

Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things 
Author: Adam Grant
Published: WH Allen
Price: Rs 499 Pages: 304

Find out more about the book here