Book Review: Weird Ideas That Work, 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation by Robert I. Sutton

There are plenty of books about creativity and innovation but Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s work caught my attention and before too long, I bought his 2002 book. You can find it on Amazon for around $2 so there’s no excuse if you are even a little interested!  In Weird Ideas That Work, Robert Sutton cites plenty of examples from various companies that used one of the below ideas.  Many of the stories are entertaining and provide interesting behind the scenes history of how some of the most interesting products of our generation came to be.  He has many quotable lines but the one I like best is: ‘If there was truth in advertising, the slogan ‘innovate of die’ would be replace with ‘innovate and die’.  Tried and true wins out over new and improved most of the time.’ But this book isn’t about replicating the expected.  It’s about the moving the needle with creative new products and services.  This unfortunately means a lots of failed ideas to sort through in order to find the good ones.  

So how does one go about coming up with great ideas – that’s where the list below comes in:

1. Hire ‘Slow Learners’ of the Organizational Code so people feel free to question the status quo and resist group thinking.

1.5. Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike since they won’t be afraid to speak their mind and challenge your own thoughts.

2. Hire people you (probably) don’t need because you may not know what you really do need.

3. Use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates since we usually hire people just like ourselves.

4. Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers so good ideas aren’t smothered.

5. Find some happy people and get them to fight in order to generate positive debate.

6. Reward success and failure, punish inaction so people aren’t afraid of trying and non succeeding – so people keep on trying!  The worst thing is not trying at all.  Henry Ford once said ‘ whether you think you can or you think you can’t, your’re right’.

7. Decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain because sometimes you never know…unless you try.

8. Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do, then plan to do them because these things may trigger new ideas.

9. Avoid, distract, and bore customers, critics, and anyone who just want to talk about money because money is usually a very short term motivator.

10. Don’t try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problems you face or you will never try anything.

11. Forget the past, especially your company’s successes because it’s too easy to get conservative and rely on the tried and true.

And after all the above, Sutton goes on to add 9 more guidelines for building companies where innovation is a way of life and not just a one-time event:

1. The best management is sometimes no management – the first priority of management is to do no harm!

2. Innovation means selling, not just inventing new ideas – without getting your idea approved by management, it doesn’t matter how good of an idea it is.

3. Innovation requires both flexibility and rigidity 

4. Incite and uncover discomfort – dislocate to innovate (my own saying)

5. Treat everything like a temporary condition – this helps people avoid getting stuck in a ‘rut’ by constantly changing their environment and the people they work with.  Sutton cites one study that found that the longer work groups are together the less work they do and the fewer new ideas they create.  The water cooler productivity goes up as people spend more of their time talking about their families, hobbies, etc.

6. Make the process as simple as possible – simple is always best

7. Innovation means living with some nasty drawbacks – innovate and die – since most ideas will fail,  you have to be prepared to face the consequences…

8. Learn to fail faster, not less often since the most creative people are usually the most productive people who have lots of failures – but more great ideas! 

9. Open is good, closed is bad – you need to be hearing, seeing, learning…

So the bottom line is that this is a great book if you are looking for ways to stimulate the creativity in yourself and your organization.  Sutton provides lots of real life examples of companies who have applied these ideas.  He also cautions against expecting too much and going too far with some of these concepts.  There is a time and place for each idea so you may not want to reward mistakes made on the production line for example! Sutton also addresses a very real problem with creative and innovative organizations – that they are not for everyone and often don’t last forever.