Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Use "Weird Rules" To Boost Your Creativity

Ten years ago, Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton wrote a book on how to manage for maximum creativity called Weird Ideas That Work. After studying some of the most innovative people and companies, Sutton concluded that what is right for routine work is consistently wrong for creative work. The best way to manage for creativity, he discovered, is to simply take every tried-and-true management trope and do the opposite.  Armed with this epiphany, he laid out his “Weird Rules of Creativity.”

In the decade since, many of Sutton’s “Weird Rules” have become, if not standard practice, characteristic of typically innovative companies.  For example, Google’s well-known 20% time (in which engineers spend 20 percent of their company time on their own creative work) is a bastardized version of Sutton’s suggestion to “Encourage people to ignore and defy their bosses and peers.” Google gives its staff time and space free from the critical gaze of “evaluative others” to create something.

Here are a few of my favorite “Weird Rules”:

1. Find some happy people and get them to fight.

As a manager, one tactic might be to allow an employee to state his case for a project or innovation – then invite team members to dissect it. Getting smart people to vigorously debate their ideas, Sutton contends, is one the quickest methods of exposing technical flaws, and paves the way for innovation.

2. Reward success and failure; punish inaction.

As Sutton puts it, “Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.” This is a version of Seth Godin’s “just ship” philosophy. Sutton suggests measuring activity level as an indicator of performance – whether someone is doing something or doing nothing – and evaluating accordingly.

3. Ignore people who have solved the exact problem you face.

The managerial tendency is to give familiar assignments to those who have been successful on similar assignments in the past. Resist this! Assuming you have a capable and talented team, present work to an unlikely team member, and you may hit on a new way of looking at a problem.

4. Hire “slow learners” (of organizational code).

It’s conventional practice to hire socially adept employees who quickly learn to do things “the right way” and slot comfortably into any team. Consider hiring “low self-monitors”, confident people who don’t feel or respond to pressures to follow the herd.  You’ll increase the spectrum of what is possible just by cultivating the misfit element.

5. Seek out ways to avoid, distract, and bore customers.

I like this one because it’s confrontational, but once you get past the initial shock of the idea, possibility opens up. Investigating what it would look like to, say, bore your own customers, is a contrarian method of brainstorming that may help you to get clear and find holes in your reasoning so you can then pursue the opposite approach.

In the end, Sutton’s “Weird Rules” are a reminder that one of the best strategies for inciting creativity is to upend the status quo. What accepted business practice can you turn on its head today?

How Do You Get Weird?

What are your weird rules for sparking creativity? Share them in the comments!

*Source: Sutton, Robert, 2001. “The weird rules of creativity,” Harvard Business Review (September): 97.

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Innovation

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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