Yang: Managing Weirdness … Is As Weird As ‘Programming Creativity’

Managing Weirdness…

…is as weird as “programming creativity.”


Los Alamos

Throughout the book “Weird Ideas That Work,” there are a lot of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” pieces of advice. While Mr. Sutton provides many examples and bullet points, there are no 12-step programs for managing weird ideas for creativity and innovation.

There are general principles, frameworks, cautions regarding measures to avoid, and so forth. By the time a manager finishes the book, she is not necessarily better off than when she started reading.  Ultimately, it’s what Sutton and his colleague, Jeff Pfeffer advise in their well-known book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap:” Just act on an idea, then you’ll learn. So, I’d say, just focus on any one of the “weird ideas” Sutton proposes in the book, and act on it. 

I contend that given the chance, plenty of people in all organizations are more than happy to dream a little, try something crazy, be innovative and creative. Even some managers are creative people … they just don’t get to express creativity in their jobs. However, to foster a creative atmosphere in an organization is management’s responsibility. The biggest paradox of managing for innovation and creativity is that they cannot be managed.

The manager who would manage for creativity should stay out of people’s way and manage as little as possible. This is not to suggest that managers should not provide parameters, define problems, or offer guidelines. But, is it so very terrible for managers to admit that they might not really know what the problems are, or, how the perimeters should be delineated? A little humility may open up a lot of space for others to explore. 

Most of us would feel guilty for “not doing much,” which is actually part of the creative process. For instance, for any creative process, there is an incubation period during which little seems to take place. So, this is not the time for managers to demand progress reports. What managers could do instead is to provide support, perhaps create a “safe” environment for people to experiment, tinker, or fail. Managers need to be the champions of people’s ability to develop ideas, and when the time comes, of the ideas themselves – selling the ideas to upper management, locating and connecting to financial resources, removing “speed bumps” such as “milestone reports” or meetings. Managers also have to act the “cheerleader” role at times and create the self-prophetic cycle of success.  Personally, I think the toughest aspects in “managing for innovation” are: (1) Dealing with (i.e. accepting) failures, and (2) Recognizing talents (i.e. give talents a chance). 

As I mentioned in the previous post, how do we define “failures?” What are acceptable failures? And what are the “stupid” ones that ought to be punished or censured? (As John Cleese suggested in a speech, “spelling ‘rabbit’ with three M’s” is an example of a failure that meets the stupid bar. And for how long should we allow failures to keep piling up? Few managers or CEOs have the strength or the vision to live in such an uncertain environment. 

Talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colors or educational backgrounds. The usual “selection committee,” which haunts the selection of candidates for professional ranks, is more than likely to choke off the variances (see last column) and go for the impressive resumes, sparkling presentations, or energetic self-promoters. (Sidebar: Ironically, the selected candidate often is the one who best meets the conventional expectations. Why not do a study on some successful introverts, especially in managerial ranks, and understand how they have overcome the conventional yardsticks? Introverts are not the best self-promoters.)

To actually hire some of those people who make you uncomfortable – per Sutton’s weird idea #11&1/2 (on my list) – would require people on the “selection committee” to be willing to be weird themselves. But when the “selection committee” members converge on a conventional choice, how many managers would defy the committee, veto the conventional choice, and go for that “weird” candidate who might (or might not) bring about innovation? 

Most management responsibilities actually involve imperfectly defined tasks, messy emotions, wide ranges of personalities, or tangled relationships. These grey zones require the ability to appreciate nuanced dynamics and make judgment calls, more than methodical plodding, planning, and execution. But these days, we really don’t allow people to make judgment calls. We “create” procedures for every task and hide behind “due processes.” So innovation and creativity fly in the face of conventional managerial practices. Sutton suggests that there should be no superstar, such as “employee of the month,” and punishing “inaction” but rewarding “failures.” Allowing an employee to sleep under the desk would be beyond “weird” for the majority of managers.

None of what’s listed as “weird” in Sutton’s book is impossible to do. He certainly cites enough examples to make me feel almost hopeful. And he definitely would disabuse the notion that one can attain some of his principles and goals just by happening to read his book, agreeing with his teaching, and immediately acting upon it. It’s an easy-read-but-hard-to-act-on book. In the end, I still yearn for something more fundamental and perhaps philosophical that can be used to build a foundation for innovation.

Ever since management as a profession was created, e.g. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management”, organizational life and operation have grown ever more linear. Do A, B, & C then, and you will get X, Y, & Z. Yet, the creative and innovative processes have not changed much since time immemorial; they’re messy circulatory processes full of unknowns, the unexpected, accidents (good and bad), and frequent unproductive periods. It’s both risky and exciting; it’s paradoxical in nature. 

So, for managers who cannot tolerate paradoxes, I would say, “Be content with flat performance, mediocre profits, and a conventional personnel pool with which to work.” As for those who would like exciting breakthroughs every so often, think about how to foster a culture in which give-and-take is standard operating procedure, trust is emphasized, playfulness is encouraged, and failures are permitted. Creativity starts with an attitude and a philosophy.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Suggested Readings:

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.



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