Weird Ideas That Work

Robert I Sutton
Publisher: The Free Press, 2002

Some ideas look weird but they work
Companies where people want to do things in proven ways should drive out variation. When innovation is the goal, however, organizations need variation in what people do, think about, and produce. People need to constantly find and produce new ideas. Variance in people, knowledge, activities, and organizational structures is crucial to creativity and innovation. Doing routine work with proven methods is the right thing to do most of the time. It is wise to manage much of the time as if the future will be a perfect imitation of the past. The problem is that the world does change, new technologies are developed, competitors come up with superior products and services, and consumer preferences change. These are the times and places when innovation is crucial. Many companies have made a lot of money by creating new and better futures. So, although it usually entails a high failure rate and a lot of resources, every company – or at least part of it – needs to keep trying to discard old ways and replace them with better new ways. These are some of the main points made by Robert Sutton in his interesting book, “Weird ideas that work”. The Weird Ideas 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. Hire slow learners. Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike. Hire people you don’t need. Use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers. Find some happy people and get them to fight. Reward success and failure, punish inaction. Decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain. Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do, then plan to do them. Avoid, distract and bore customers, critics and everyone who just wants to talk about money. Don’t try to learn anything from people who say they have solved the problems you face. Forget the past, especially your company’s success.

and may not like working on teams. social cues. Such people have the confidence to do what they think is right. and values. gregarious people with social graces. even to find. The second way to spur activity is to find new uses for old materials. Even when they do figure out what others expect. This means. Some of the most creative people are loners. Their feelings and actions are “controlled by inner attitudes. they are new blends of old objects. or actions. Most companies automatically search for fast learners. Sutton advocates hiring slow learners. Ideas rarely sell themselves. Slow learners are likely to have high self-esteem. Creativity results from using old ideas in new ways. Yet it is actually far less mysterious.2 Understanding creativity Creativity is often portrayed as something that cannot be defined. alone with their own thoughts and ideas. and services. dispositions. Creativity is not only about inventing. The first way to convince people we have done something creative is to show them an old idea they don’t know about.” they will have trouble producing the “right” response in sincere and convincing ways. For better and for worse. Much research shows that people with high self-esteem are less susceptible to influence by external and. places. who won’t get brainwashed into thinking just like everyone else. or concepts. products. and who see things much like everyone else in the company. They want people who look likely to learn how to do things “the right way” quickly. or combinations. or expect them to do. and are recognized and appreciated in every innovative company. But innovation needs newcomers who have new ideas and see things differently than insiders. They prefer to spend time away from coworkers. Most companies look for . A great new technology is worthless useless someone buys it. Rather. when they think it is wrong. Hiring people Most companies screen job candidates to bring in people much like company insiders. They may be difficult to talk to. that such people will reject what others think and do. Accidental discoveries sometimes enable firms to serve unexpected customers. But they do increase the range of ideas in a company. hints from others about how to act. products. particular. and hold steadfast against it. no matter what others ask them. and even not so subtle. they are relatively unfettered by social norms. and especially. objects. Such people are especially insensitive to subtle. These criteria make sense if a company wants people who will repeat its tried-and-true ways of thinking and acting. who are willing and able to bend to the wishes of others. or copied. described. Most things that appear to be entirely new are not conjured up out of thin air. even when they do “get it. People need to be sold a new idea. Creativity also means inventing entirely new ideas. The process of finding new uses for old things is not always intentional. tell them. rather than to be molded and shaped to fit the situation. ideas. services. among other things.

companies need to reward people for taking intelligent action. not what they are told can drive their bosses crazy and can get their bosses and companies in deep trouble. negative emotional reactions or evaluations. The variance in the gene pool is reduced. Innovation also happens when senior managers do not bother to stop people who are doing unauthorized work. The excessive emphasis on success means that people who succeed may still get more kudos than they deserve from peers and outsiders. Punishing inaction To encourage innovation. get out of the way. They sometimes come up with wonderful new ideas. or even to check into what they are doing. Defying superiors and peers If a company wants to encourage innovation. insubordinate. These deviant. and those who fail may get more blame than . not just for talking about the virtues of failure.3 fast learners who will do things as they have always been done. But a company can benefit from slow learners if it wants to explore new ways of doing things. with a few bosses and many subordinates. If people only talk about and do what their bosses expect. and see what happens. even those we don’t like. it is important to routinely encourage people to defy authorities and established procedures. finding people who can learn new skills fast has become critical for all companies. Creative firms prefer to hire people with interesting backgrounds but who actually don’t know how to do the job they will be given. People who do what they think is right. is another way to find a few useful misfits who will ignore and reject the organizational code. ask and order them to do. these are reasons in favour of hiring the person. It might not even be enough to give equal rewards for success and intelligent failures. encourage them to ignore and defy you under certain circumstances. Leading innovation can mean doing less rather than more. chances are that some will be slow learners. And if we start hiring newcomers who make insiders squirm. Hiring people who make us uncomfortable. knowledge. if it wants to break from the past so it can keep making money later. Organizations are hierarchical. But they also force companies to try promising ideas even though some boss or powerful group has rejected them. It will help bring in some new ideas. hiring a few slow learners can be a worthwhile investment in the future. Even in parts of the company that do mostly routine work. Given how fast technical skills become obsolete these days. If we find a candidate who seems competent and has skills we need but has different beliefs. They know that smart people can always learn new skills. That is how to make money right now. experimentation. Innovation increases when managers allow employees to act without getting permission first. or risk taking. relatively few ideas will be discussed and tried. Hire some smart people. and skills than most insiders. and stubborn people take enormous delight in proving their superiors wrong.

proven. the aim is to get people to list those products. because they want to protect their reputations. where their heightened energy is devoted to what they already do best because they fear failure and want to impress others. and powerful thing we can do to increase the odds that a risky project will succeed. theories. Or they can deceive people who work on these projects (and themselves) into believing that success is nearly certain. To offset this bias. people follow a different cognitive path than usual to reveal beliefs. then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain There is one simple. which reduces the (albeit still high) odds of failure. Leaders who want innovation face a nasty dilemma. People with dumb. and Bore Customers. They can tell people whom they have selected to work on a risky project that it will probably fail.4 they deserve. which are more likely to succeed than new and unproven ways. which will help ensure failure and lead to negative consequences for both the company and the person. the sights and sounds of others can trigger a kind of tunnel vision. we must convince ourselves that. services. That is the power of positive thinking. Decide to do something that will probably fail. the whole truth and nothing but truth. business models. We perform familiar actions faster and better.” Do ridiculous or impractical things Sutton mentions that getting stupid is a smart thing to do if we want to build an innovative company. To increase the chances of success. dumb or impractical. The desire to make a good impression causes people to cling to tried-and-true ways. and learn new responses more slowly and perform them less well. and evidence about what the company ought to do. People are especially hesitant to try new things in front of critics and bosses. . and then reversing them. or business practices they believe are destructive. Avoid. By listing ideas that people believe are wrong or misguided. Thinking up ridiculous things helps us to explore our assumptions about the world and examine more options. Distract. we are better at doing old things and worse at doing new things. impractical ideas should be encouraged and not pulled down. and inaction must be punished. To jolt people into questioning the existing dogma and to generate counterintuitive ideas. Regardless of exactly how it is accomplished. Research by psychologists suggests two sound reasons for generating allegedly dumb and impractical ideas. the idea is destined to be a triumph. Sutton argues that failure should be rewarded even more than success. with determination and persistence. Critics. misguided. In people. Sutton admits it is not good to lie but he emphasises that “deception is sometimes more ethical than telling the truth. and Anyone who just want to talk about money Research shows that when others are present.

and making one . and material required to gather diverse ideas. which can lead people who disagree with the decision or who are rendered powerless by it to feel excluded. This problem is magnified when work is subjected to minute inquiry by leaders who have lot of power. do to harm. This strategy helps us avoid attention. instead of arrogantly assuming that we are right just because we have more power. we must stay out of the way and trust that more knowledgeable employees will make fewer mistakes than us. unfair. If it is difficult to keep outsiders away. teams. interest. Companies. Overbearing managers who overestimate their knowledge can waste the precious time of employees. For managers. another strategy is to delude yourself a bit. skilled managers need to protect and sometimes insulate innovators from outsiders. and then devote less energy to monitoring performance. satisfaction. managers. people. that we do not have the time. reach a lot of dead ends. Projects that lack resources suffer because they don’t have the time. can kill innovation. Leaders can dim the spotlight by becoming less interesting to others. One hallmark of wisdom is having the humility to respect others who have greater knowledge. but who know little or nothing about the technology. reject or ruin good ideas. An effective strategy for dealing with unwanted attention is to tell people to go away. or advice that can distract our team from more important tasks. and challenge of the work itself – and not by external pressures. A nosy boss can hamper innovation just by constantly interrupting people or teams to ask for progress reports. as it suggests a rigid course of action.5 If we want to shield a promising idea from being nipped in the bud or shaped into a colourless imitation of the original.” If we do not have a deep understanding of something. which is interpreted as a sign that there is something to hide. People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest. we need to be wary of exposing innovative work to three kinds of people: The wrong customers. upset everyone if they find that what is said about them in inaccurate. and leave a destructive stench of cynicism in their path. Avoiding people is more polite and less likely to annoy potential intruders than telling them to go away. If done effectively. to try them in new combinations. product or market. There is no innovation without money. and complete clarity. others will pay less attention to a boring leader or company. A related strategy is to avoid outsiders. Clarity in organizational communication is overrated. or even downright mean. or energy to deal with them. and money mongers. or worse yet. especially on short-term financial performance. a useful guiding principle is “First. Too much emphasis on money. to pretend that they aren’t watching us or talking about us. asking about minute details. and refine and perfect good ideas. Ambiguity is a useful compromise between total silence. criticism. Clear and specific information about what will be done next also creates obstacles to flexibility and change. It is easy to ignore people if we never see them. To make innovation happen. and people are often subjected to attention because people find them intriguing.

If ties to headquarters remain too strong. guarantee that innovative ideas will be discovered and developed. and joint ventures in ways and places that are not held hostage by their company’s past successes. either because they lack bias or because they are experts with biases that are drastically different from people in our industry or company. Controlled experiments show that when a person does something even once. but curious. we must find someone who is knowledgeable. especially your company’s successes The way the human brain operates. Don’t try to learn anything from people who say they have solved the problems you face In the creative process. especially in the early stages.6 (perhaps misguided) suggestion after another. especially if it was successful. of course. Sometimes being ignorant. makes us prone to repeating what we have done in the past. freestanding companies. Forget the past. or never thought about.” repeated again and again. the action becomes automatically. Ignorant people don’t know what they are supposed to see. or at least a new business unit. expertise in an area. if we are ignorant about a subject. If we know a lot about a subject. They can see things that others have failed to notice. and imagine new ideas and perspectives that would never occur to people who develop deep. where people at the distant outpost follow the company code closely. we must seek advice from people who are naïve. Many companies have broken free from established technologies. so they can see old things in new ways that so-called experts have rejected. is better than knowing the way things are supposed to be done and the way that others have done them. This ability to make a behavior “automatic” is one of the main reasons that human beings can accomplish so much. but have the burden of being a distant and often powerless entity. the result can be the worst of both worlds. and business models by setting up new divisions. is to start a new company. or “mindlessly. One of the most powerful ways to encourage innovation is to routinely take people out of jobs where they are competent and assign them to jobs where they do not have the right skills and that make them feel uncomfortable. So while the virtues of engaging communication are widely recognized as crucial managerial skills. One way to break free from an organization’s successful past. Knowledge about effective ways of doing things can stifle creativity. People who don’t know how things are “supposed to be” aren’t blinded by existing beliefs. business practices. there are times when being dull is the best thing for the company or team. Companies that do this routinely force . Forming a new business far from headquarters does not. however. But such “mindless behavior” has also been shown to persist even when it undermines performance. and does not question what was done or why. And. ignorance is bliss. but narrow.

so people know what to focus attention on and what to ignore. although the past cannot be changed. it will only be accepted if the right people can be persuaded of its value. Another suggestion made by Sutton for breaking from the past is to use a random process to generate and select decision alternatives. they might prosper once again. The back-to-the-future method is also smart because. At the same time. It helps to define problems narrowly enough so they can be talked about in a constructive way. Leaders of innovative companies expect and encourage their so-called subordinates to ignore and defy them. because human memory is so poor. It is a powerful technique because old-timers aren’t being asked to ignore or devalue their history. Sometimes it is better to ignore the traditional decision-making process. Not only that. especially the recent past. and if they do go back to the business practices and models that made them successful in the early days. or getting out of the way completely. but to constantly disband and reform work groups. not because they are objectively superior to those of competitors. and ignore elements that clash with the future they hope to create. we can encourage people to go back to the company’s glory days. . where people spend a great deal of time comparing the pros and cons of each alternative. A related technique is not just to move employees around a lot. there is a lot of flexibility to interpret what happened and what it means for present actions. Putting people in new positions makes them see the same old tasks in new ways. Generating different ideas and seeing old things in new ways can only be accomplished by people who can revise their beliefs easily. or skills. is the “back-to —the-future” method. some rigidity is necessary for developing successful innovations. persuasive leaders can selectively focus on elements of company history that reflect where they want the company to go.7 people to keep learning new things. No matter how wonderful something new is. Too many innovations succeed because they are sold better. and so ideas can be developed and tested in sufficient depth to see if they are any good. identity. Rather than encouraging people to look ahead or copy competitors. Evidence that random acts can generate important innovations is found in the long list of scientific breakthroughs made through serendipity and “mistakes. The logic behind using a random process is that it will not be biased by the knowledge of past successes. Creativity is in the eye of the beholder. Innovation requires flexibility. This is a smart strategy because many companies have lost their way. Building innovative companies Leading innovation can require a soft touch. They are being asked to return to a bygone era and take what worked best. Longstanding teams are especially prone to getting trapped in the past. Members can become so fond of each other and talk among themselves so much that they start ignoring outsiders.” The final way to break from a successful past.

and to let the other vary. Discomfort plays another role. theory. Discomfort can be generated by hiring people we do not need. Playfulness and curiosity are related attitudes of innovation. it is in trouble. The other option is to hold the solution constant and let the problems vary. when employees defy bosses. Innovation is really about a pair of attitudes: the ability to switch emotional gears between cynicism and belief. and when people argue over their precious ideas. They use work practices that help people focus on what matters and ignore the rest. A hallmark of innovative companies and teams is that they make everything as simple as possible. Innovation can be simplified by reducing the number of products or services developed and sold. These misguided efforts to inject order and control. . or be opposed to an idea. product. can tangle aspiring innovators in red tape and condemn them to meeting after meeting with people who barely understand their work. Discomfort is an inevitable and desirable part of innovation. Discomfort is not much fun. and not enough to developing ideas. but it helps people to avoid and break out of mindless action. or service is treated as the possible solution to many as-yetunknown problems. Leaders of innovative companies constantly create alarm and warn that just because things are working well now does not mean that they will work later.8 A useful guideline for striking a healthy balance between rigidity and flexibility is to hold either the solution or the problem constant. The exact methods used to innovate are less important than building a company where people have the right attitudes towards their work and each other. or between deep doubt and unshakable confidence. If a company is dominated by only one. Needless complexity arises when companies consider every contingency and involve anyone who could possibly improve. support. Innovative companies must be filled with people who are passionate about solving problems. it speeds development. A simple philosophy about what an innovation will be reduces unnecessary distraction and effort. If everyone follows a simple vision. when people imagine dumb things and try to do them. Many successful ideas were invented because someone got upset about something and then did something about it. focuses effort. and results in simpler products or services which will be easier to build or implement. The organizing principles for routine work reflect the assumption that everything is a permanent condition. to keep the problem rigid and the possible solutions flexible. The most common strategy is to find a problem and then to search for and evaluate alternative solutions. It happens when some new or old technology. These complex and dysfunctional processes can also require innovators to devote too much time to selling ideas and playing organizational politics. and to achieve perfection. The organizing principles for innovative work reflect the opposite assumption.

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