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  • Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Think Again by Adam Grant | The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Think Again by Adam Grant Book Summary

⭐ Toby's Rating: 8/10 - Recommended For: Experienced Leaders


When people reflect on what it takes to be mentally fit, the first idea that comes to mind is usually intelligence. The smarter you are, the more complex the problems you can solve—and the faster you can solve them. Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.

Think Again by Adam Grant is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency.

- Adam Grant Think Again

3 Big Ideas💡

The big ideas from Think Again by Adam Grant:

  • Take a scientific approach to thinking. Develop more humility about your knowledge, doubt in your convictions, and curiosity about alternative points of view.

  • Relationship conflict is generally bad for performance, but some task conflict can be beneficial: it’s been linked to higher creativity and smarter choices.

  • Motivational Interviewing is one of the best ways to help people rethink and unlearn. The central premise is that we can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better off helping them find their own motivation to change. In many ways, this approach is similar to coaching.

2 Most Tweetable Quotes 💬

The best quotes from Think Again by Adam Grant:

Beethoven and Mozart didn’t have higher hit rates than some of their peers; they generated a larger volume of work, which gave them more shots at greatness.

Minimize relationship conflict and maximise task conflict.

Tobys Top Takeaway

The Think Again Book helped me Rethink conflict.

The best teams I've been part of have had good relationships, even to the degree of friendships. I've always had tension that perhaps this might be a negative. I'd heard the research that good teams have conflict. So when I'd work in teams with good relationships I'd often think: are we doing something wrong?

But I'd never really took the time to learn that in fact there are two types of conflict. Relationship Conflict and Task Conflict.

Research in the book shows that relationship conflict is generally bad for performance, but some task conflict can be beneficial: it’s been linked to higher creativity and smarter choices.

My new insight: Minimize relationship conflict and maximise task conflict.

What I'll do differently in future. Focus on ways to build closer relationships between team members. Whilst at the same time amplifying task conflict so that it leads to more creative results.

I created this model to help people navigate conflict:

Conflict Matrix


Big Ideas Summarised from Think Again by Adam Grant 💡

Summary of key topics within Think Again Book by Adam Grant

Think Again Visual Summary

What stops you from Rethinking?

Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

- George Bernard Shaw

First-instinct fallacy - The tendency to be more confident in your first response and less likely to change your mind. Research shows that classroom students who rethink their first answers rather than staying anchored to them end up improving their scores.

People prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. People favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.

We live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.

We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995.

Three Identities people take that prevent Rethinking:

  • Preacher - When our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals.

  • Prosecutor - When we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case.

  • Politician - When we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents.

The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.

People celebrate great entrepreneurs and leaders for being strong-minded and clear-sighted. Yet evidence reveals that when business executives compete in tournaments to price products, the best strategists are actually slow and unsure.

I’m beginning to think decisiveness is overrated . . . but I reserve the right to change my mind.

Recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.

2 Biases that drive this pattern:

  • Confirmation bias: seeing what we expect to see.

  • Desirability bias: seeing what we want to see.

Instead of focusing on becoming smarter, focus on increasing Cognitive Flexibility. The willingness to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires.

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How conflict helps you think better 🤬

Research shows that conflict is key to high performing teams. Agreeable teams tend to create lower-quality solutions.

But did you know there are two types of conflict? One that is helpful. And one that can damage your team irreversibly.

When you think about conflict, you’re probably picturing relationship conflict—personal, emotional clashes that are filled not just with friction but also with animosity. This conflict is damaging to a team. Without the right leadership coaching, this conflict can go out of control. It can create irreversible damage to relationships.

There is another type of conflict, task conflict-clashes about ideas and opinions. This occurs when we’re debating whom to hire, how to build a feature and deciding on priorities.

High performing teams typically have low relationship conflict and keep it low throughout their work together.

When it comes to task conflict, high performing teams generally have this from the outset. They openly challenge each other's opinions and ideas only converging at the last responsible moment. This avoids premature convergence which is essential when dealing with complex problems.

A meta-analysis of studies showed that relationship conflict is generally bad for performance, but some task conflict can be beneficial: it’s been linked to higher creativity and smarter choices.

Coaching can help you harness the power of task conflict. It's a common misconception that coaching is just a cosy chat. Skilled coaches often bring a high degree of challenge. Asking questions that help people identify blindspots and explore new perspectives. It helps to activate rethinking cycles by pushing us to be humble about our expertise, doubt our knowledge, and be curious about new perspectives.


How to help others to Think Again 🤼

Changing your mind doesn’t make you a flip-flopper or a hypocrite. It means you are open to learning.

Convincing other people to think again isn’t just about making a good argument—it’s about establishing that we have the right motives in doing so. When we concede that someone else has made a good point, we signal that we’re not preachers, prosecutors, or politicians trying to advance an agenda.

Progress is impossible without change;1 and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

George Bernard Shaw

When someone becomes hostile, if you respond by viewing the argument as a war, you can either attack or retreat. If instead, you treat it as a dance, you have another option—you can sidestep.

In a heated argument, you can always stop and ask, “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer is “nothing,” then there’s no point in continuing the debate.

For decades psychologists have found that people can feel animosity toward other groups even when the boundaries between them are trivial.

In every human society, people are motivated to seek belonging and status. Identifying with a group checks both boxes at the same time: we become part of a tribe, and we take pride when our tribe wins.

A key to dismantling stereotypes and decreasing prejudice is counterfactual thinking. This involves imagining how the circumstances of our lives could have unfolded differently.

People gain humility when they reflect on how different circumstances could have led them to different beliefs.

Listening Motivates People to Change It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear.

- Attributed to Dick Cavett


How Motivational Interviewing helps Rethinking 🎤

The central premise is that we can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better off helping them find their own motivation to change.

Motivational interviewing starts with an attitude of humility and curiosity. The objective is not to be a leader or a follower, but a guide.

The goal isn’t to tell people what to do; it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities.

Our role is to hold up a mirror so they can see themselves more clearly, and then empower them to examine their beliefs and behaviors. That can activate a rethinking cycle, in which people approach their own views more scientifically. They develop more humility about their knowledge, doubt in their convictions, and curiosity about alternative points of view.

The process of motivational interviewing involves four key techniques:

  • Asking open-ended questions

  • Engaging in reflective listening

  • Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change

  • Summarizing

Motivational interviewing has been the subject of more than a thousand controlled trials; a bibliography that simply lists them runs sixty-seven pages. It’s been used effectively to change behaviours such as smoking, drug abuse, exercise habits and many more.

When people ignore advice, it isn’t always because they disagree with it. Sometimes they’re resisting the sense of pressure and the feeling that someone else is controlling their decision. To protect their freedom, instead of giving commands or offering recommendations, a motivational interviewer might say something along the lines of “Here are a few things that have helped me—do you think any of them might work for you?”

When we try to convince people to think again, our first instinct is usually to start talking. Yet the most effective way to help others open their minds is often to listen.

Psychologists recommend practising this skill by sitting down with people whom we sometimes have a hard time understanding. The idea is to tell them that we’re working on being better listeners, we’d like to hear their thoughts, and we’ll listen for a few minutes before responding.

Research results of bad listening:

  • Among managers rated as the worst listeners by their employees, 94 percent of them evaluated themselves as good or very good listeners.

  • In one poll, a third of women said their pets were better listeners than their partners.41 Maybe it wasn’t just my kids who wanted a cat.

  • It’s common for doctors to interrupt their patients within 11 seconds,42 even though patients may need only 29 seconds to describe their symptoms.


How to Think in Complexity 🌀

We now know that where complicated issues are concerned, seeing the opinions of the other side is not enough.

Hearing an opposing opinion doesn’t necessarily motivate you to rethink your own stance; it makes it easier for you to stick to your guns (or your gun bans). Presenting two extremes isn’t the solution; it’s part of the polarization problem.

Psychologists have a name for this: binary bias. It’s a basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories.

If you find yourself saying ____ is always good or ____ is never bad, you a falling into the binary bias trap.

Debate less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes.

Resisting the impulse to simplify is a step toward becoming more argument literate.

A fundamental lesson of desirability bias is that our beliefs are shaped by our motivations. What we believe depends on what we want to believe.

To overcome binary bias, a good starting point is to become aware of the range of perspectives across a given spectrum.

Acknowledging complexity doesn’t make speakers and writers less convincing; it makes them more credible. It doesn’t lose viewers and readers; it maintains their engagement while stoking their curiosity.

A good example is Emotional Intelligence.

Instead of arguing about whether emotional intelligence is meaningful, we should be focusing on the contingencies that explain when it’s more and less consequential. It turns out that emotional intelligence is beneficial in jobs that involve dealing with emotions, but less relevant—and maybe even detrimental—in work where emotions are less central. If you’re a real estate agent, a customer service representative, or a counselor, being skilled at perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions can help you support your clients and address their problems. If you’re a mechanic or an accountant, being an emotional genius is less useful and could even become a distraction.


How you can teach rethinking skills 🧑‍🏫

Traditional methods of education don’t teach students rethinking skills.

Consider these two examples:

Scenario 1 - Lecture Style Learning:

The instructor presents slides, gives explanations, does demonstrations, and solves sample problems, and you take notes on the handouts.

Scenario 2 - Active Learning:

Instead of doing the example problems, the instructor sends the class off to figure them out in small groups, wandering around to ask questions and offer tips before walking the class through the solution. At the end, students fill out a survey.

Which scenario is most enjoyed by the students? Lecture Style


Students also rated the teacher in this example as more effective.

However, despite enjoying the lecture style more, when assessed it was the active learning session where students learned more.

It required more mental effort, which made it less fun but led to deeper understanding.

Experiments have also shown that when a speaker delivers an inspiring message, the audience scrutinizes the material less carefully and forgets more of the content—even while claiming to remember more of it.

Good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.

Ultimately, education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads. It’s the habits we develop as we keep revising our drafts and the skills we build to keep learning.

I’ve noticed that the students who are the most certain about their career plans at twenty are often the ones with the deepest regrets by thirty. They haven’t done enough rethinking along the way.

How to Rethink at work 👔

Rethinking is not just an individual skill. It’s a collective capability, and it depends heavily on an organization’s culture.

Rethinking is more likely to happen in a learning culture, where growth is the core value and rethinking cycles are routine.

In learning cultures, the norm is for people to know what they don’t know, doubt their existing practices, and stay curious about new routines to try out. Evidence shows that in learning cultures, organizations innovate more and make fewer mistakes.

Psychologically safe teams report more errors, but they actually make fewer errors.

Psychological safety is not a matter of relaxing standards, making people comfortable, being nice and agreeable, or giving unconditional praise. It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal. It’s the foundation of a learning culture.

5 Questions Leaders can use to stimulate rethinking in the workplace:

  1. What leads you to that assumption?

  2. Why do you think it is correct?

  3. What might happen if it’s wrong?

  4. What are the uncertainties in your analysis?

  5. I understand the advantages of your recommendation. What are the disadvantages?

The standard advice for managers on building psychological safety is to model openness and inclusiveness. Ask for feedback on how you can improve, and people will feel safe to take risks. Managers can role model by admitting their imperfections out loud and making a public commitment to remain open to feedback. Normalize vulnerability, making their teams more comfortable opening up about their own struggles.

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