Book of the Month: Weird Ideas That Work

Weird Ideas That Work: How To Build a Creative Company

By Robert I. Sutton

Book cover; weird ideas that workThis book is packed full of ideas and examples, Sutton often gives the chapters or the ideas thought-provoking titles – chapter 10 is “Decide to Do Something That Will Probably Fail, Then Convince Yourself and Everyone Else That Success is Certain” for example, this chapter could be summarised without persistence great ideas fail; persistence requires belief. It’s worth reading on. I thought back to a project I managed about 5 years ago, one of the team came to me telling me we’d hit a “showstopper”, my only question was a mild “which one is it today?” and he later told me that gave him hope – the fact that I clearly saw it as another setback and not stopping us.

Most of the ideas sound counter-intuitive, but Sutton provides evidence and examples to show that they work. He also makes a clear distinction between the needs of an organisation (or department) that needs to do what it does consistently and repeatedly and one that needs to innovate, the practices in this book are for the latter.

For a long time I’ve held the belief that people who are new to your organisation are a valuable source of critical information, they haven’t bought into the company’s branding and processes and have fresh ideas on how to improve things. I value their input, and have coached new arrivals to contribute. Sutton codifies this as “Hire People Who Are Slow Learners (of the Organizational Code)”. Such slow learners retain their ability to think critically and independently, as an example of this Sutton uses Richard Feynman’s role in the Challenger investigation.

This idea is taken one step further and labelled as “Weird Idea #1½”, and contrary to the fashion for hiring for cultural fit the advice is to hire people who make you feel uncomfortable, even those you dislike. We know that as hiring managers have a bias towards hiring people just like us, so this really goes against our instincts. But a company full of creatives misses the business needs and a company full of engineers misses creative opportunities.

Of course there’s more to this idea, once you’ve bought the person into your company you need to find ways to make any resulting tension into something productive; one suggestion from the book is deceptively simple; you need to listen to their ideas and and insist others do so as well.

Perhaps my favourite weird idea is #5

I was brought up to avoid conflict and confrontation, but it can be productive. When people fight about ideas it shows they care about their work, the project and the company. If people fight respecting the perspectives of the others the results can be a better process or product. It’s the opposite of group think.  The word “happy” is key to the idea working; this limits the risk of discussions falling into destructive personal attacks, they’re more likely to use humour to diffuse any situation that becomes heated and the conflict stays productive.

This isn’t a new book – I have had it on my bookshelf for years, I guess I picked it up after reading “The No Asshole Rule” by the same author but published later. Some of the ideas I have come across in other places, but it’s still interesting to see them backed up by evidence and examples.  Throughout the book I had moments of recognition, sometimes happy that I had stumbled on the right approach to foster innovation, and sometimes rueful as it cast previous events in a different light. It’s a quick read, and the examples help and point to further reading.

I think this is a good book for any manager looking to make their team more creative and more energised about innovation. I’ll be keeping it on my shelf for future reference. (And I’ll keep an eye out for his next book coming out in September).

Book of the Month: Rebels at work

Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within

By Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina, and Debra Cameron

 I wish I’d read Rebels at Work years ago. It’s aimed at all those who have great ideas and struggle against the complexity and inertia of a big company to get them implemented. It’s about leading change from within a company, getting your ideas heard, building support, and how your personal approach can help (or hinder) the process.

I recognised a lot of the concepts in Rebels at Work, but seeing them put into words and in context gave me many “aha” moments, starting with the matrix of past, present and future thinking. True rebels will be future thinkers while large organisations are likely to exhibit the characteristics of “present thinking” – focusing on organising, rules, structure, processes and reaching goals. This contradiction can lead to frustration for rebels, but the book goes on to give you ideas to address it.

One big lesson the book brings up several times; the timing of launching your big idea. Don’t do it in the first moment you think of it; do your research, and build support first. I’ve seen this go wrong for a number of people who have had great ideas but earnt themselves a reputation of not being serious enough to get things done. I don’t think that’s been a failing of mine – but I have definitely underestimated how much people like the status quo and don’t want to change.

There’s some interesting research throughout the book, the report that got me was the 10% tipping point; research shows that if 10% of a group believe in an idea the majority of the people will adopt that believe.

Book of the Month2

One of the strengths of the book is the focus on interpersonal skills, there’s a whole chapter on handling disagreement and conflict. They provide strategies and even sample texts to help change the discussion instead of asking why ask “how might we reduce the risk?”, why forces the argument, how brings people onside.

There is a chapter focusing on “rebel self-care” which talks about the signs of burnout and reminds you that you can walk away, an truth that’s hard to remember when you’re in the middle of change and believe you’re making things better.

Even with this chapter I think the authors underplay how hard the rebel’s role can be and how damaging it can be, I suspect their answer might be “walk away before that happens”.

I got the recommendation for this book via twitter sometime last year, I started reading it then – almost crying with recognition! Then life happened and I was busy with other things, and only came back to finish reading it this month. It’s a great guide for those trying to change companies from the inside, so a big thank you to Luis Suarez.