One of my favourite things to do is read or re-read old business books a decade or more after they were first published. It’s a bit like checking in with psychics at the end of the year to see if Tulsa really did disappear when the birds left.
I also like old business books because they tend to be Apple-free and resist the urge to drool over or worship Steve (like he needs a last name). It would seem that 11 years is the threshold for AFBBs (Apple-Free Business Books. )
Weird Ideas That Work: 11-1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing and Sustaining Innovation by Robert I. Sutton, sadly, is not one of them, but Apple is a bit player, and the author is free to point out that before Steve Jobs came along, people did invent cool things.This book came into the world in 2002; into a remainder bin around 2008; onto my Leaning Tower of Things I’ve Been Meaning to Read around 2010 and to the top of the heap a few weeks ago.
The first five and a half ideas have to do with choosing who should and shouldn’t work in your business. Rule One is to choose people who are going to be slow to adapt to the prevailing corporate culture. These “slow learners” are necessary to remediate the status quo and the toxic systemic sycophancy ( my term) that prevents innovation. Loners and misfits are people to be hired, protected from the cultural missionaries and paired up with people who do understand the system well enough to actually get things done. Richard Fennyman, John Lennon and Francis Crick are famous slow learners.
Sutton’s half rule follows and it is this: hire people who make you uncomfortable or even those you dislike. If you’ve been finding it difficult to tell your Corporate Overlords apart, chances are your company isn’t driving new thinking by hiring people who are different enough, or even objectionable enough, to effect change. Our first Apple occurrence comes in here in the example of Jobs versus Mike Markkula. Jobs versus Mike Scott. Jobs versus,well, almost everyone else. Unless your discomfort in a new hire stems from the livestock they bring to work, you should consider shaking things up a little with more of them.
The second rule is one I suspect most of us won’t get away with but it goes something like this: if you interview someone and you think they are just what you might need in, say, a year or two, go ahead and hire them now just in case they come in handy. It doesn’t say how you explain a hire requisition for Spare Parts to the HR people.
I didn’t actually know the third idea was supposed to be weird. I have always used job interviews as a way to pick through a new brain for free. I figure since someone is sucking up a bunch of my time anyway, why not lob a few problems I can’t figure out at them. Or go fishing for some juicy industry and competitor gossip. Or see if they know how to fold fitted sheets. I just can’t hear that one enough.
The fourth idea isn’t weird anymore: I don’t think encouraging people to ignore and defy superiors and peers is new; it’s like encouraging them to steal office supplies and park badly– they’re going to do it anyway. But in this case the idea is not to make them feel bad about it. Atari games, HP monitors and even a technology to rescue stranded submariners are all the fruits of people who went ahead and did exactly what they were told not to. Sort of like a productive Charlie Sheen.
I like Idea Five a lot: find some happy people and get them to fight. Sometimes this is as simple as leaking the payroll to the entire company on a Friday night, though that rarely ends well. But if what you really want is innovation and not Cheez Whiz in your boss’s gas tank, try locking up a grumpy, contrary know-it-all without food for a while and then send them in to completely unhinge the bunch who are working so nicely together. The idea is that by fostering a rigourous or even ugly debate, the project team subjects itself to more scrutiny than it might if they were just giving each other foot massages and happy ohms. Me, I just love a good bun fight.
Idea Six suggests rewarding both success and failure, while punishing inaction. Now before you make popcorn and settle in to watch the public flogging of your Productivity Prevention Department, you should know that the punishment in question seems to be to simply cancel useless projects rather than actually making anyone suffer. This blows, I know, but Honda, SAS and HP have all used this idea successfully.
The seventh idea suggests you decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain. Despite sounding like the Mitt Romney campaign, our friends Galilleo, Geoffrey Ballard and the Xerox printer guys are all examples of people who made this work. The rule isn’t so much about rewarding willful stupidity with popsicles as it is about backing apparently risky projects, thinking the very happiest thoughts about them and, if needed, quietly killing them before they do too much damage.
Rule Eight asks us to Think of Some Ridiculous Things to do. By asking your people to think up the dumbest ideas, the intent is to help identify opportunities that maybe aren’t so dumb or those that are not just stupid but entirely likely to occur to somebody. Everything from Pet Rocks to Palm Pilots to space probes has emerged from deliberately putting absurdity and reality on a collision course and seeing what pops out. The trick here is to make sure that everyone feels comfortable enough to share their very dumbest ideas, but doesn’t necessarily think they should act on them. I think I’ve worked for that company before…
The ninth and tenth ideas deal with knowing when to get others involved in a project and when to give them something else to worry about. This is sort of like pulling the fire alarm every time there’s a budget review. Eventually, they’ll stop wondering who likes fire trucks more than budgets and leave you alone to overspend. The advice here is solid enough: protect your key projects from nosy people who could kill them too early, but remember to invite the Sniveling Classes in when you need an honest opinion or a little bit of animosity to move the team ahead.
The final idea, and it’s one that all companies, even Apple, should heed is not to spend too much time celebrating past success and depending on it as a predictor of anything good. IBM learned that the hard way, though interestingly, GM is held up in this book as an example of looking forward with its sad Saturn brand. Which is exactly the delicious irony I seek in old business books.
Bottom Line on this book: If you’re really stuck for some ideas to get innovation moving, this is an easy read and offers a few ideas that, while not weird, are probably still effective. If you’re really struggling, though, I’d put my money on Unstuck by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro.