Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company

by Robert I Sutton

This book is now seven years old which dates some of the examples and stories that are used to back up the main ideas. However those ideas are still relevant.

The author starts out by discussing the tensions between having a great execution capacity and having a great creative capacity. In many cases a great execution capacity is about doing things consistently and well while a great creative capacity is about changing things around, doing things differently, and breaking some of the rules and failing. It is important that people understand the differences. No one wants to get on a flight from Melbourne to Sydney and hear the pilots say "I am going to try a bit of creative flying today". So each capacity needs to be applied in the right context. However that is very difficult to do in practice so this book is about trying to help you achieve that balance.

The three key themes of creativity that the author bases the book on are very similar to some of the approaches we take to innovation in strategy:

  1. Increase the variance in available knowledge
  2. See old things in new ways
  3. Break from the past

In some ways the last two could be combined together. In foresight work these principles also apply because we see the future through the lens of our past experiences and ways of doing things.

Based on these three themes the author then goes on to talk about ways of achieving them:

  1. Hire "Slow Learners" (of the organisational code).
  2. Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike.
  3. Hire people you (probably) do not need.
  4. Use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates.
  5. Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers.
  6. Find some happy people and get them to fight.
  7. Reward success and failure, punish inaction.
  8. Decide to do something that will probably fail, and convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain.
  9. Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do , then plan to do them.
  10. Annoy, distract and bore customers, critics, and anyone who wants to talk about money.
  11. Don't try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problem you face.
  12. Forget the past, especially your company's successes.

There is not enough space here to go into all of these so I will make some comments about some of them:

Hire "Slow Learners" (of the organisational code).
This is obviously for large organisations, but it does highlight a very important point. It is very easy for organisations to end up with a culture where everybody thinks the same. This idea is about picking people who will be resistant to joining the company culture. As one example (p37) the author recommends hiring people he refers to as "low self monitors". These are people who are less reliant on pleasing others or their views of themselves being reinforced by the judgements of others.

Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike.
This is obviously for large organisations and is almost impossible in small organisations. I think it is one that is particularly difficult to implement.

Use job interviews to get ideas , not to screen candidates.
This is a very useful idea in two ways. First of all, if you ask people to solve problems in job interviews rather than promote themselves you get a better idea of their capabilities. Secondly, if you ask for ideas and really listen to them, you may pick up market intelligence or new ideas that will be useful to your organisation.

Reward success and failure, punish inaction.
This is one of my favourites. One of the things that is at the core of creativity and innovation is the ability try lots of things and to fail. The author uses the example of IDEO which is a world-famous design company. In this example of their toy design area only 5% of ideas generated get further work done on them and 0.3% of ideas generated get to market. In too many organisations, and particularly in government organisations, failure is punished when it is inaction that should be weeded out.

Don't try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problem you face.
This one seems crazy on the face of it but the reality is if you always use existing solutions to problems then you are not going to get any great creative leaps. The balance here has to be the time efficiency of using simple and proven solutions versus the creative leaps of trying things in different ways, again a difficult thing to do.

The author concludes the book with a section of putting the ideas to work in a practical sense.

Overall I really liked the book but it has two key weaknesses:

  • It is mainly structured around very large organisations and therefore has a limited audience. The reality is that the author is about improving the creativity of large organisations, in part because they struggled to compete against smaller organisations in this way.
  • It tends to get repetitive as many books like this do. It seems that the author and publisher don't feel they can sell a book that is a hundred pages long and so they create a book that is two hundred pages long but still contains the same ideas.

Despite those weaknesses I would still recommend that you read the book and the most value can be gained in doing so by:

  • Reading it as a description of creativity and how it works in organisations and therefore come to a better general understanding of the subject.
  • Taking specific examples that you can implement in your own organisation.