In Management, Weirdness Works

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Revisiting "Outside The Box"

TechTransform, January 4, 2002: In Business 2.0's Barely Managing newsletter (highly recommended!), editor Thomas Stewart spotlights a book by Robert Sutton, who teaches at Stanford's engineering school, called Weird Ideas That Work.
Stewart writes: Sutton is an expert on innovation, and the essence of his argument is this: A lot of what passes for universally applicable management technique isn't helpful -- in fact it may even be harmful -- in circumstances where innovation is the most important business problem.
Stewart goes on: Innovation flourishes when managers use ideas that seem weird to people schooled in techniques developed to routinize work. Sutton proposes 11 such ideas. The first: Hire people who are slow to learn the organizational code, who don't fit in right away, who don't understand how things are "supposed to be done," who are smart but socially awkward engineer-caricatures. Mathematician John Nash, he of A Beautiful Mind (which is wonderful -- go see it), never went to his math classes. John Lennon was a pain in the arse. David Sutherland of the Maryland consulting firm Business Innovation Consortium puts it this way: "You don't want innovation if you're hiring for fit."
Several of Sutton's weird ideas have to do with hiring: Hire people who make you uncomfortable; hire people you don't need; use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates. Other ideas have to do with fostering cantankerousness: Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors; find happy people and get them to fight; avoid people who just want to talk about money.
"One of my favorites, number 10 on Sutton's list: "Decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain." Why's this? It's extremely difficult to do better than chance in forecasting the results of something truly new, but literally hundreds of studies show that self-fulfilling prophecies happen. The "reality-distortion field" of an impassioned leader like Steve Jobs creates what might be the most important condition for success in innovation -- that sexy thang called confidence."
Also mentioned in this article:
Last spring Tom Davenport and John Beck, two consultants at Accenture's Institute for Strategic Change, the company's research and development shop, published a smart book called The Attention Economy. ( just named it one of the 10 best business books of 2001.) Their premise: "The scarcest resource for today's business leaders is no longer just land, capital, or human labor, and it certainly isn't information. Attention is what's in short supply."

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