Niko Juranek  | August 27, 2023 min

Adam Grant: Timing, Strategic Procrastination and the First-Mover Disadvantage

In our working world, procrastination often has a very negative connotation. In his book “Originals”, Adam Grant shows a surprisingly different side, in which cases strategic procrastination can even have a great advantage and that actually a few of the greatest achievements in human history can be traced back to procrastination.

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Short summary

Procrastination often has a very negative connotation in our working world. In his book "Originals", Adam Grant shows a surprisingly different side, in which cases strategic procrastination can even have a great advantage and that actually a few of the greatest achievements in human history can be traced back to procrastination.

The myth of the "First-Mover Advantage"

"Time is money", "A rolling stone gathers no moss", "The early bird catches the worm", "Don't procrastinate, take action." - Our linguistic usage is full of phrases that clearly show how negatively procrastination is tainted in our society.

The stereotype applies: Successful people do everything on time, do not procrastinate and have an advantage due to their early action; on the other hand, procrastination only affects lazy, undisciplined people.

While reading the book Originals by psychologist Adam Grant, I came across the chapter "Fools Rush In - Timing, Strategic Procrastination and the First-Mover Disadvantage", in which he explores the traits of unique, successful personalities who champion new ideas and drive meaningful change ("Originals"). [1] These are people who think creatively, challenge the status quo and are willing to take risks to positively impact the world. Many people have these as role models, leading the way as visionaries and pioneers, supposedly successful because of proactive, quick action.

Yet Grant provides surprising insights that refute this stereotype: the fact is that, in most cases, the advantages of fast action ("first-mover-advantage") are far outweighed by the disadvantages in the case of the "originals".

Pioneers and settlers - the right timing

Research shows that people like to believe in this stereotype - after all, most want to be "leaders", not "followers": scientists vie to make new discoveries before their rivals, inventors rush to file new patents that are protected from others' access, entrepreneurs and start-ups try to launch their product before their competitors do.

This has advantages, of course: You can enter and dominate a large new market faster, you are protected from imitators, you might even get a Nobel Prize for your discoveries. In fact, one study shows that the right timing is said to make 42% of the difference between the success and failure of a start-up. [2]

Marketing researchers Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis go a step further and compare the successes of companies they categorise as either "pioneers" or "settlers":

  • The pioneers are the first-movers, the first companies to develop an idea or launch a product.
  • The settlers are a little slower with their start, waiting until the pioneers have found a new market before entering.

The considerable differences in terms of failures are interesting:

47% of pioneers failed, compared to only 8% of settlers.

This means that the probability of failure is about 6 times higher for pioneers than for settlers.

But that's not all: even when pioneers succeeded, they only managed to gain an average market share of 10%, while settlers managed 28%. [3] At the same time, if the pioneers managed to gain a higher market share, this was accompanied by a higher risk of failure, as well as the likelihood of lower returns. Researcher Lisa Bolton thus clearly states:

"Although first movers face some advantages in particular industries, the academix research remains mixed and does not support an overall first-mover advantage." [4]

Bolton's exciting finding is that people continue to believe the myth of first-mover advantage even when they learn of research that disproves just that. The psychological "survivorship bias" makes it easier to think that pioneers always succeed - the failed ones are forgotten.

Because this is so ingrained, Grant recommends that people change their focus and not just look at the "survivors" but rather ask themselves what disadvantages await first-movers. [5] Other studies support this view: Strategy researchers Elizabeth Pontikes and William Barnett observed that entrepreneurs have a significantly greater chance of success if they wait until the market cools down again rather than jumping on the hype generated by others. [6]

In the words of author Malcolm Gladwell:

"Wouldn't you rather be second or third and see how the guy in first did, and then... improve it?" [7]

Successful entrepreneur Peter Thiel also said:

"Moving first is a tactic, not a goal. Being the first mover doesn't do you any good if someone else comes along and unseats you." [8]

So in most situations, being a settler is an advantage. At the same time, Grant stresses that this does not mean never being first; after all, someone has to start and no novel things would emerge if everyone always waited for someone to do something. [9] Paul Graham, on the other hand, warns against "per-project procrastination", which is particularly insidious because people hover in the belief that they are being productive - but distract themselves with unimportant details instead of tackling the right thing. [10]

Procrastination: the real secret of Leonardo Da Vinci's success?

"You don't have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don't always arrive on schedule. They are fashionably late to the party." - Adam Grant [11]

In addition to the success and failure aspects, procrastination has another surprising benefit, as one of Grant's PhD students, Jihae Shin, notes:

"Procrastination can be conducive to originality." [12]

However, a prerequisite for this is that the procrastination takes place during the activity, so you cannot constantly put something off per se and hope that a realisation will suddenly come, but you have to start, gain initial experience and learn, and then take many breaks where the brain has the opportunity to process the content in the rest period and then find surprising approaches to solving the problem.

So in this respect, procrastination can affect productivity, but in any case it can also be an excellent source of creativity - which may even be responsible for a few of humanity's greatest achievements.

Grant backs this up with examples from history. For example, he says, civilisations throughout long stretches of history have learned to appreciate and harness the benefits of procrastination, such as the ancient Egyptians, who knew two different words for "procrastination":

  • One that denoted laziness;
  • the other meaning waiting for the right time. [13]

Grant points out that it was the greatest "originals" in human history who were procrastinators: Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, is reported to have waited for years to complete probably his most famous works, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

He is said to have interrupted the Mona Lisa again and again after starting it in 1503 until he finally completed it shortly before his death in 1519; he is also said to have worked on the Last Supper for over 15 years while pursuing other projects. Historian William Pannapacker comments:

"His work in optics might have delayed a project, but his final achievements in painting depended on the experiments [...] Productive mediocrity rquires disciopline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity... But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline." [14]

Da Vinci himself is also said to have been quite distressed or annoyed by this, but had to admit to himself that originality could not be rushed; he himself is said to have said:

"Genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least, for they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect idea." [15]

Strategic procrastination: The discipline to procrastinate & improvise.

Procrastination, then, is a tried and tested habit of creative thinkers and problem solvers, some of which was used accidentally in the development process, but some of which was deliberately used strategically to give ideas even more space.

Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln in particular are reported to have waited until the last night, and in some cases even until the beginning of the speech, to put the final touches on their legendary speeches:

"Lincoln ultimately didn't write the closing paragraph until the night before the speech, and it was the morning of the speech before he finalized it. He waited because he wanted to develop the most compelling theme." [16]

Thus, in only 272 words, he managed to portray the Civil War as a quest for the liberty and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence and to carry people along emotionally.

It is also the case that Martin Luther King's legendary "I have a dream" idea is not said to have been in his preparation at all, but rather, through his good preparation, he is said to have compiled a smorgasbord of texts, oratorical fragments, metaphors, anecdotes, Bible verses, poems, which fuelled his creativity more and more until this then occurred to him spontaneously:

"King did not so much write his speeches as assemble them, by rearranging and adapting material he used many times before... It gave King the flexibility to alter his addresses as he was speaking... Had King not decided to leave his written text, it is doubtful that his speech at the march would be remembered at all." [17]

Great originals, then, are great procrastinators, but this does not mean that they omit planning per se, but rather procrastinate strategically, making constant progress through small trials and adjustments. This makes it possible to remain open to spontaneity and improvisation at the same time.

In fact, experiments with new CEOs in companies also show that change that is too fast is not good at all, but is always rejected by the usual employees at the beginning; therefore, the best time for change is in the middle, when teams have already been able to try out their own ideas and strategies in a project and then notice that it does not work with them, but the time was also chosen early enough to still test the effect of other strategies. The groups were most amenable to new ideas and creativity at this point. [18]

Waiting is therefore not passive procrastination "for lazy people", but a strategic tool to wait for the right moment, to achieve maximum creativity and at the same time to be able to use the opportunity of spontaneity.

Conclusion: How good or bad is procrastination?

In conclusion, based on Grant's research, procrastination is anything but bad:

  • We see that in most cases the First-Mover Advantage is a disadvantage rather than an advantage.
  • Strategic procrastination and the right timing can be wiser than rushed action. Procrastination can be bad for productivity if you want to get things done right away; but it is excellent for developing creativity.
  • Timing and strategic procrastination play a crucial role in success and originality.
  • Originals like Da Vinci, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln used procrastination as a tool for creativity.
  • The art lies in purposefully waiting and creating space for ideas.

In a world of speed, the chapter shows that strategic procrastination can foster originality. It reminds us that procrastination often leads to breakthrough results and guides creativity.

I hope that the article has helped you and perhaps given you a different (better?) picture of procrastination; especially if you have found yourself feeling bad about your tendency to put things off.

Used correctly, procrastination can be a wonderful, effective tool for creating great work and making a difference.

How could you use strategic procrastination?


References

  1. Grant, Originals – How Non-Conformatists Move The World* (2016), 92 ff.
  2. TED-Talk by Gross, The Single Biggest Reason Why Startups Succeed (2015).
  3. Golder/Tellis, Pioneer Advantage: Marketing Logic or Marketing Legend?, Journal of Marketing Research 30 (1993), 158f.
  4. Bolton, Believing in First Mover Advantage (2007).
  5. Originals, 104.
  6. Pontikes/Barnett, When to Be a Nonconformist Entrapreneur? Organizational Responses to Vital Events, University of Chicago Working Paper Nr. 12 (2014).
  7. Interview with Malcolm Gladwell, YouTube, Toronto Public Library, Part 3 (2012).
  8. Thiel, Zero To One: Wie Innovation unsere Gesellschaft rettet* (2014).
  9. Originals, 108.
  10. Graham, How To Do Great Work (2023).
  11. Originals, 94.
  12. Procrastination can be conducive to originality: Shin/Grant, Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Hidden Benefits of Procrastination for Creativity (2015).
  13. Originals, 96.
  14. Pannapacker, How to procrastinate like Leonardo Da Vinci (2009).
  15. Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue to our Times* (1568 / 2006); Italian original "Le vite de' piu eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori" (1568).
  16. Noonan, The Writing of a Great Address, WSJ (2005).
  17. Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation* (2005).
  18. Nadkarni/Herrmann, CEO Personality, Strategic Flexibility, and Firm Performance: The Case of the Indian Business Process Outsourcing Industry, Academy of Management Journal 53 (2010); Woolley, Effects of Intervention Content and Timing on Group Task Performance, Journal of Applied Behavioural Science 34 (1998); Gersick, Marking Time: Predictable Transitions in Task Groups, Academy of Management Journal 32 (1998); Katz, Sports Teams as a Model for Workplace Teams: Lessons and Liabilities, Academy of Management Executive 15 (2001).

Hinweis: The books marked with * contain affiliate links. This means that I receive a small contribution if you buy the book via my link. You will not incur any additional costs, but you will help me to finance the blog so that I can continue to write such extensive articles. Thank you! - Niko


Mag. Nikolaus Juranek

Nikolaus Juranek is a jurist and certified trainer for communication, rhetorics & leadership. In his articles he deals with how to acquire practice-relevant skills and abilities from a wide range of fields in order to grow in one's job, hobbies and private life.

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