To Be Normal, Or To Be Weird? That Is NOT The Question
The questions should be: How weird is weird? For how long should weirdness be allowed to go on? Of course, what I really should put in the title is “To have normal ideas or to have weird ideas…” Kind of boring, isn’t? In order to catch people’s attention, I have to step beyond the normal boundary. This is the same rationale with which Robert Sutton begins his book, Weird Ideas That Work, published in 2002.
To be innovative, or to be creative, is all about operating outside the norm.
Mr. Sutton breaks down the organizing principles for innovative work into these three:
- Increase variance, which means generating a wider range of ideas.
- Examine old practices in new perspectives.
- Break from the past cleanly.
Like the featured lecturer of my last column, Bill Bennett, Mr. Sutton (both men are professors at Stanford Business School) also uses James March’s work on “exploitation and exploration” as the foundation to discuss innovation. As I have mentioned a few times, March’s “Technology of Foolishness” is a seminal work.
The aforementioned three principles would fall under “exploration,” and organizations using these principles must be willing to wait for a while for the potential profits. The opposite, eliminating variance, sticking to the old ways, and “honoring” tradition, gives the organizations profit now. In other words, exploiting the current technology involves less cost and brings in more cash.
My last entry largely focused on the first principle, increasing variance. For the second principle — seeing old ways in new perspective – Grace of my dissertation case (click here) provides just the example. After revamping her little eatery, she still offers many similar items to other Chinese restaurants, such as, stir-fried noodles or dumplings, but she presents them on non-traditional plates, which seem to take on different flavoring. Her menu is modern, clean, and offers only about 1/5 of what typical Chinatown eateries offer. And Grace seals her signature coffee by using a siphon system that’s more common in Taiwan, but not in the States.
To break away from the past is more an attitude than a tactic. Sutton gives us the example of tea bags. For 34 years, tea bags were all flat square pouches. Then, Tetley tested on consumers and found that overwhelming response favored round bags. In January, 1990, Tetley launched round tea bags and gained 5 percent more market share. PG Tips pushed further and came up with Pyramid bags, which is supposed to “mirror” the actual brewing process. These days, many high-end teas use Pyramid bags.
None of these principles would necessarily be easy to adopt, and no one is advocating that all organizations should constantly seek weird ideas, break new grounds, and the like. It is risky and costly. And often, there are valid reasons for old ways that should not be ignored, or discarded willy-nilly. However, for organizations that aim to increase their innovation rates, it behooves them to keep these principles in mind.
So, what are Sutton’s “weird ideas?” He lists 11&1/2:
1. “Forget the past, especially your company’s success”
2. “Don’t try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problems you face”
3. “Avoid, distract, and bore customers, critics, and anyone who just wants to talk about money”
4. “Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do, then plan to do them”
5. “Decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain”
6. “Reward success and failure, punish inaction”
7. “Find some happy people and get them to fight”
8. “Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers”
9. “Use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates”
10. “Hire people you (probably) don’t need” – (only for organizations flush with cash. Don’t expect non-profit and government agencies to do this)
11. Hire “slow learners” (people who are slow to adopt to the organizational code)
11&1/2. Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike.
I reverse the order just to be “weird.” Today, I will briefly touch on #5.
Successfully launching a new idea is rare, and successfully launching a new idea into a new market is even rarer, by some accounts on the order of 1/3,000. And “experts” aren’t at all good at predicting which idea will succeed; what the experts have resigned themselves to accomplishing, is to label the strategic sector of investment in new ideas for new markets the “suicide square.” More from the experts: “…the difference between visionary genius and delusional madness is much clearer in history books than in experience.”
Often, the ultimate success has much to do with this self-fulfilling prophecy: If an organization “believes” in an idea, significantly commits to it, then that idea has a better probability of actually succeeding than otherwise. But if the idea looks like it’s heading for “failure” – however it is defined – pay attention to the reasons and learn something from the process. As Sutton states, “Forgive and Remember,” not “Forgive and Forget.” After all, “failure rate” is one indicator of successful innovation process.
Philosophically, I get this principle and like it. Realistically, how many organizations, CEOs and managers are willing to make such commitments AND allow people to actualize them? Our attention-deficit culture so prefers short-term gains that it will challenge even the ordinary managers while squelching the visionary ones. So, whenever you come across a remarkable leader, work harder to realize your imagination while still under the umbrella of her/his leadership. There may not be much time.
The innovation journey continues. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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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.