The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights

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As Adam Grant of the Wharton School reminds, the most valuable thing you can deliver to clients or fellow managers is often a clear statement of the obvious, especially when it comes to human behavior.

A few years ago, the “people analytics experts” at Google stunned Grant with one of their recommendations to management.  They had been studying how to onboard new hires most effectively.  After running surveys and experiments, they came back with a list of tips.  Here’s the one that jumped out at him: “Meet your new hires on their first day.”

People analytics has transformed HR and talent management into a data-driven field.  Since Google was a pioneer in the field, Grant was expecting an “aha moment.”  Instead, he got a Homer Simpson “duh-oh” moment; that is, a sudden flash of the “blindingly obvious.”

As an organizational psychologist, Grant has tended to highlight the counterintuitive, the unexpected and the overlooked.  For the past decade-and-a-half he has regularly referred people to the classic advice from sociologist Murray Davis who said:  “If you want to be interesting, challenge the weakly held assumptions of your audience.”  Similarly, Grant argues that what makes Malcolm Gladwell’s books so successful is not so much “great storytelling,” but questioning of “conventional wisdom.”

Google’s analytics team had done the exact opposite of all that:  They had confirmed the most banal component of conventional expectations.  Grant felt like he was hearing from Pelé that the key to becoming a great soccer player was wearing shoes.  Who needs to be told to meet their new hires on their first day?  And, what kind of manager wouldn’t do that?

The answer: A busy one!

When Google managers acted on an email sent out nudging them to take simple onboarding steps like “talking with people about their roles and responsibilities” and “scheduling regular check-ins,” their new hires, on average, got up-to-speed a month faster.

Over the past two years, Grant has concluded that he was wrong to place such a high premium on the unexpected.  He recognized that findings don’t have to be earth-shattering to be useful.  In fact, he has come to...

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