Book Review: Weird Ideas That Work

Weird Ideas That Work:  11 1/2 Practices For Promoting, Managing, And Sustaining Innovation, by Robert I. Sutton

This book is an exhibit in something that does not often receive enough attention, and that is the way that in order to cultivate innovation, we often have to do things that are not comfortable for us.  Innovation is, after all, all about encouraging change and growth, and these things are painful and unpleasant to us.  Even if there are some areas where we relish growth, there are likely to be a great many more areas where changing things does not come easily and where those who push us to change or grow will not be people we necessarily enjoy being around.  Furthermore, as this author does not sugarcoat, a great deal of innovations are in fact not very worthwhile or successful, but that in order to cultivate innovation in general, in the hope of finding a few new ideas that can be developed into very worthwhile new approaches or technologies, one has to put up with a lot of very bad ideas.  Knowing this and accepting this is certainly an important part of being able to encourage innovation.  And if one does not wish to do so, it is at least good to understand why it is that innovative and creative people do tend to make others feel uneasy with their complacency.

This book of about 200 pages is divided into three parts and 15 fairly short chapters.  The author begins with two chapters on why the book’s weird ideas work (I), namely why they work but seem weird (1) and a definition of creativity (2).  The second part of the book, which takes up most of the book’s material, examines the weird ideas in turn (II), specifically:  hiring those who learn the organizational code slowly, if at all (3), hiring people who make one uncomfortable (4), hiring people one doesn’t need (5), using job interviews to get ideas and insight, not to screen candidates (6), encouraging people to ignore and defy peers and superiors (7), finding happy people and getting them to fight (8), rewarding success and failure and punishing inaction (9), deciding to do something that will probably fail and then convince everyone that it will certainly succeed (10), thinking of some ridiculous things to do and then planning to do them (11), avoiding, distracting, and boring customers, critics, and anyone who only wants to talk about money (12), not trying to learn anything from those who have solved one’s problems (13), and forgetting the past, especially past successes (14).  After this the author closes with a chapter on putting weird ideas to work (III), namely building companies where innovation is a way of life (15), after which there are acknowledgments, notes, and an index.

Why is it that these ideas work, and what do we know about institutions where these weird ideas are anathema?  Well, to take the second question first, it is useful to note that these ideas are precisely the opposite behavior of what a conservative church would do, and it is fairly obvious why, because in some areas of life innovation is not only not particularly appreciated, but it is particularly and strongly disliked.  This then leads into the obvious question of why these weird ideas work in the first place.  Innovation and change require someone who thinks differently than others do, and who is capable of envisioning a different world than that which now exists.  Such people are not likely to be the most charming or socially adept, because their internal drummer will be far stronger than their interest in and ability to conform with others.  This lack of conformity makes others uncomfortable and can create issues with others, and cultivating eccentric people who march to the beat of their own drummer and have a variety of odd or wacky ideas, most of which are bad but some of which are very good is not a very comfortable or easy thing to do.  The question is, do we value innovation in a particular area?  And if we do, we are going to have to do some unconventional and uncomfortable things in order to cultivate change and creativity, since it will not come in packages and ways that we will be familiar with or immediately fond of.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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