Monday, July 16, 2007

Sutton's Weird Ideas

I've been reading Robert Sutton's Weird Ideas That Work, which is Yet Another Book on Innovation. I like his Assholes bookand Evidence-Based Management, and this one is entertaining and provoking too. Here is the summary of the weird ideas, which he counts as 11.5, but this is hard to do automatically in html so for me it's 12:
  1. Hire "Slow Learners" (of the Organizational Code)
  2. Hire People Who Make You Uncomfortable, Even Those You Dislike
  3. Hire People You (Probably) Don't Need
  4. Use Job Interviews to Get Ideas, Not to Screen Candidates
  5. Encourage People to Ignore and Defy Superiors and Peers
  6. Find Some Happy People and Get Them to Fight
  7. Reward Success and Failure, Punish Inaction
  8. Decide to Do Something That Will Probably Fail, Then Convince Yourself and Everyone Else That Success Is Certain
  9. Think of Some Ridiculous or Impractical Things to Do, Then Plan to Do Them
  10. Avoid, Distract, and Ignore Customers, Critics, and Anyone Who Just Wants to Talk about Money
  11. Don't Try to Learn Anything from People Who Seem to Have Solved the Problems You Face
  12. Forget the Past, Especially Your Company's Successes
He says executive audiences responded to him with an "all very amusing, Bob, but we need to get things done here." I admit I'm a little bit with them on this -- it's great for consultants to come in and be creative at you, but end of the day, most of us need to ship code/product, which means teamwork of some variety, goals and means mapped out, achievable successes. But an innovation factory is a different thing, perhaps.

This said, I have seen the teamwork and normative workplace culture taken to extremes of unhealthiness, usually to the detriment of new hires with different ideas from other places. It's possible to be both infused with creative new ideas that threaten your status quo AND ship products, in my opinion. It's a challenge for mature management! To test your own culture: Check carefully how many managers, especially senior ones, were promoted from within versus hired externally. Then look at how experienced the people being hired are (sometimes, very). It might tell you something interesting about status quo thinking versus desire for fresh input.

Another test of your culture: In interviews, does the corporate "fit" come across as paramount, or the resume and evidence of work product elsewhere? I once watched a very senior statistician get turned down in favor of a more junior candidate who was just like everyone else in her skillset. I didn't fight hard enough myself on that one, I was part of the problem.

Defying authority certainly doesn't go over well in most corporate cultures I've worked in. Hierarchy is very much part of the American firm (Larry Prusack pointed this out recently at a great Boston CHI talk)-- the larger and more established the company, the more ingrained it is. I think there's a function related to size, corporate age, hierarchical position, and a person's tenure at a company that will predict how resistant she/he is to new ideas about doing things differently. Because large, successful companies are most reluctant to change what they do now (which is making money), for some sensible reasons: shareholders, golden handcuffs, employees to retain and feed, etc.

For designers, this often cashes out in how much change to an old shipping product you can make... a lesson it took me many jobs to really understand. (Note to designers hunting for jobs: Don't believe them when they say you're going to redesign it, especially if it's selling! The inertia will be strong and may become an actual undertow.) Historical success limits how much change you can make to processes that produced a selling product, even if they were flawed or painful in various ways for the people who worked on it. People are always more comfortable the way things are, regardless of what could be better.

Edited to add: It's a cultural failure mode to assume that everything is great or okay as is, but it's another one to fail to critically understand your successes, too. You can do root cause analysis for the good things too, and it might even teach you more than the failures do. If you aren't good at understanding success, you can't duplicate it, and you might make the critical morale error of celebrating the wrong factors.

Of all the weird ideas, the sensible-sounding "punish inaction" is particularly hard to see really happening in most offices. Few people are ever fired for not rocking the boat. People who aren't often noticed usually have a job for life, as long as their company keeps doing the same old expected thing.

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