Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company

all great technologies are blends of other technologies.

An assumption runs throughout much of this chapter—indeed, throughout much of this book—that many new ideas are generated by people who are seen as deviants within their companies, industries, and societies. Apple Computer’s simple slogan, “Think Different,” captures this perspective well. Unfortunately, thinking and acting differently is given lipservice in most companies, but when people actually do it, they are ignored, humiliated, and fired. If you really do want to encourage people to develop ideas that will be seen as dumb and impractical, I have one more piece of advice: Outlaw even light-hearted ridicule and put-downs when people suggest these wacky ideas.

an idea is creative when it is new to people who use or evaluate it, and (at least some of them) believe it could be valuable to themselves or others.

Be wary when people tell you that they don’t produce a lot, but when they do, it will be “brilliant.” Remember that innovation is largely a function of productivity.

Einstein said, “A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.

Focus on “pulling the plug” on failed ideas more quickly, not on reducing your failure rate.

GETTING STUPID CAN BE a mighty smart thing to do if you want to build an innovative company. Thinking up the dumbest, most ridiculous, and most impractical things you can do is a powerful way to explore your assumptions about the world. It helps elicit what you know and believe but may have a hard time articulating, perhaps because it is so obvious you don’t even notice it. It also helps you imagine what might happen if your dearest beliefs turn out to be dead wrong. And thinking up the most ridiculous things you can do—and then thinking about why you might do them—creates a broader palette of options. This weird idea works because it sparks two essential forces for constant innovation: variance and vu ja de.

Hire newcomers that other people in your company will dislike.” David

Hire people you know you don’t need now, but you think you might need later.

If you want a creative organization, inaction is the worst kind of failure.

In short, if you want innovation in your company, you need to reward people for taking intelligent action, not just for talking about the virtues of failure, experimentation, or risk taking. It might not even be enough to give equal rewards for success and intelligent failures. The excessive value that our culture places on success means that people who succeed may still get more kudos than they deserve from peers and outsiders, and those who fail may get more blame than they deserve. To offset this bias, perhaps this weird idea should be “Reward failure even more than success, and punish inaction.

Interviews are useful for other things besides screening candidates. For

is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

I use job interviews for two things. First, to recruit people. Second, to get some help with my work. I give job candidates problems I can’t

Jeffrey Pfeffer and I found that many ineffective companies suffer from this disease, which we call the “smart talk trap.”17 This a syndrome where companies hire, reward, and promote people for sounding smart rather than making sure that smart things are done. In such organizations, talking somehow becomes an acceptable—even a preferred— substitute for actually doing anything. Inaction is bad for any company. But it is especially devastating when innovation is the goal, because so many ideas need to be tried to find a few that might work.

Last year, I was teaching a group of executives who were arguing about whether it was possible to do creative work with people who had poor social skills and who preferred to work alone. One executive from a computer hardware firm squirmed and turned red, finally blurting out, “These are exactly the kind of people I manage.” He went on to say: They hide in their offices, and don’t come out. We divide the work so they each have a separate part. We slide their assignment under the door and run away. They ignore us when we tell them it is good enough—they won’t let us build it until it meets their standards for elegant designs—they don’t care what we think.

Low self-monitors are pretty much the opposite. Their feelings and actions are “controlled by inner attitudes, dispositions, and values, rather than to be molded and shaped to fit the situation.”7 Even when low self-monitors do figure out what others expect, even when they do “get it,” they will have trouble producing the “right” response in sincere and convincing ways. For better and for worse, low self-monitors are relatively unfettered by social norms. These mavericks and social misfits can drive bosses and coworkers crazy, but they increase the range of what is thought, noticed, talked about, and done in a company. High self-monitors tend to be yes-men (and -women), who can’t stop themselves from telling others what they want to hear. Low self-monitors can’t stop themselves from saying and doing what they think is right, because they don’t notice—or don’t care about—pressures to follow the herd.

managers continue to use methods that force people to see old things in old ways, expecting new and profitable ideas somehow to magically appear.

March presents impressive formulas and graphs showing that when an organization has a greater percentage of people who are incapable, unwilling, or have not yet learned the way things are “supposed to be done around here,” the company is more likely to be innovative. Yet March offers few hints about what kinds of people are likely to be slow learners. Research in personality psychology suggests that three kinds of traits are key: those who are “low self-monitors,” those who avoid contact with coworkers, and those who have very high self-esteem.

Nolan Bushnell, the founder and former CEO of the Atari Corporation, remarks that “sometimes the best engineers come in bodies that can’t talk,

Organizations that learn from their failures forgive and remember, they don’t forgive and forget.

smart talk trap.”17 This a syndrome where companies hire, reward, and promote people for sounding smart rather than making sure that smart things are done.

Sometimes, the best management is no management at all. Jeffrey Pfeffer likes to say that managers should be required to take something like the physician’s oath: “First, do no harm.

Support a few crackpots, heretics, and dreamers, especially if they are wildly optimistic about their ideas.

The question is not what you look at, but what you see. —Henry David Thoreau

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. —Thomas Edison

Vu ja de means seeing old things that are inside and outside the company in new ways.

weird ideas spark innovation because each helps companies do at least one of three things: (1) increase variance in available knowledge, (2) see old things in new ways, and (3) break from the past. These are the three basic organizing principles for innovative work,

When everyone in a group always agrees, it may mean they don’t have many ideas. Or it may mean that avoiding conflict is more important to them than generating and evaluating new ideas. It may even mean that people who express new ideas are ridiculed, ostracized, and driven out of the group. Regardless of the reasons, lack of conflict and dissent means the group is unlikely to express and develop many valuable new ideas. Groups—and societies—that stifle people with new, untested, ideas undermine both imagination and personal freedom.

Writings by philosophers and psychologists on the differences between intelligence and wisdom might also encourage you to become a better listener. Intelligent people say lots of smart things and produce the right answers to questions more often than less intelligent people, but they are not necessarily good listeners. In contrast, wise people are better listeners and are better at formulating questions than people who aren’t so wise.6 So, if you and your firm want to get smarter, the wise thing to do is to shut up, listen, and learn to ask smart questions—not to keep showing off how much you know and how fast you can think.