Saturday, January 01, 2005
A fresh start for 2005 - Weird ideas that work.
The New Year Begins
Do you need a fresh start in 2005? An article about Stanford Professor Robert Sutton on creating new ideas written up by Barry Blitt in ‘Fast Company’ magazine (January 2002) is worth thinking about.
Most people believe that you need to recruit people who are quick on the uptake who can get along with co –workers. Not so says Professor Sutton .Flip these ideas upside down and instead hire slow learner, people whom you dislike and don’t need. Then encourage them to defy and fight with managers and peers. Get them to think of ridiculous things and then get them to do it. Encourage people to ignore superiors. Rather than teaching newcomers about the company have the newcomers teach old-timers how to think and act. Encourage people to drive you crazy by doing what they think is right rather than what they are told. You need happy people who know how to fight. If you want innovation you need upbeat people who know that right way to battle.
This advice sounds wrong; a kind of anti-wisdom – even weird, but according to Robert Sutton (a professor of management science and engineering) they’re some of the most powerful practices for generating and capitalizing on new ideas. ‘What is weird’, says Sutton, ‘is that some people say they want innovation, yet they can’t depart from their deeply ingrained beliefs and practices..’
Sutton believes weird ideas work because they trip discomfort and flip people ‘from autopilot to mindful creation’, and encourage teams to bring fresh eyes to bear on every challenge.
But, he warns don’t get weird too fast.
All the excitement about innovation has obscured the fact that most new ideas are bad and most old ideas are good. It’s a Darwinian principle. The death rate of new ideas is higher than that of the old ones. The innovators dilemma is that you can’t choose between innovative work and routine work. That’s like choosing between your heart and your brain.
The best companies organize them selves around two fictions. Routine work is guided by the assumption that everything is in a permanent condition as if the future will a perfect imitation of the past.
On the other hand, the organizing principle for innovative work is to treat everything like a temporary condition. The key is to create some kind of switching or signal system to guide work through both approaches.
The truth about creativity is that to find a few ideas that work you need to try a lot that do not. Artistic geniuses simply do more (and fail more) that other creators. And the trouble with creativity, says Sutton, is that you can’t tell at the outset which ideas will succeed. So the only thing is to fail faster in order to move on to the next idea. Few organizations hold failure on the same level as success often they have ‘forgive and forget’ policy. Forgiveness is crucial, but it is not enough. In order to learn from mistakes it’s even more important to ‘forgive and remember’. The only kind of failure to be punished is inaction.
There is another unspoken truth thing about creativity. It isn't so much about original creation as it is about using old ideas in a new way; it’s about seeing old things in a new light. It means switching off the autopilot and looking at every challenge with fresh eyes.
The best way to bring fresh eyes is to bring in new kinds of people; useful misfits. When it comes to innovation no one is too weird. Sutton’s advice is to recruit slow learners. Hire people with a special kind of stupidity who ignore or reject how things are ‘supposed to be done around here.’ ‘Hire people who make you uncomfortable.’ Don’t seek out those who are rude or insulting but people with different beliefs and skills than most insiders. Such people often scout out new trends, ideas and directions for the company.
A final point about slow learners Sutton makes is that many of them are loners and agitators. They can only add value if you surround them with fast learners who can protect them and translate them to the organization. Creativity doesn't work without that interplay.
So when you know you need to head in new direction, but you don’t know what road to take, sometimes the best thing is to do whatever is the most ridiculous or random. Thinking up the dumbest things is a powerful way of challenging limiting assumptions. It can bring hidden beliefs into relief, invite questions, and crystallize the purpose of the organization.
The challenge is for leaders is, not only hire people who could be wrong most of the time, but also to know when they aren't wrong. And when you pick up a new idea go with it a 100% - back it with a winning attitude to increase its chance of success. Such confidence, even if misguided, helps people perform better.
On the other hand, says Sutton, the only thing more important than optimism is the capacity to pull the plug on a bad idea. Innovative companies demonstrate tremendous conviction and passion when they’re exploring new ideas yet the have the ability and instincts to move onto the next new thing.
If school are to become centres of creativity, innovation and talent development we need to apply such weird ideas to education as well.