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

more posts →
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.
load comments (29)
  • GaphicDesignBoss

    It’s not a weird rule per se, but I have a simple & incredibly smart tactic to increase productivity & creativity at my graphic design business. It worked like a dream.

    I still use it every single day.

  • Jonathan Kay

    I absolutely love #1 & #2 – both produce an environment where good things happen.

  • Jan Willem

    Weirdness rules:
    To be someone unpredictable without being unreliable.
    This partly comes from a dislike of redundancy.

  • Daniel Nordstrom

    Thanks for a good article. It reminds me of the book “F*ck Logic” by the Swedish ad man Per Robert Öhlin —… — which presents many interesting ideas. Another more popular (and cheap!) book is “Whatever you think, think the opposite” by Paul Arden, an easy yet though-provoking read.

    Quotes from “F*ck Logic” (translated from Swedish):

    “Those who know will not get anywhere. In knowledge there is no driving momentum. Expectation, however, is loaded with dynamics.”

    “Creativity, love and risk are basically different words for the same thing.”

    “The most creative way of thinking is; irresponsibly, quick and unwise.”

    “We humans relate to each other mainly through conversations. And they are almost exclusively in the form of storytelling, which more or less include brands.”

    And here’s one from Paul Arden’s book:

    “When a client asked how much it would cost to get permission to photograph the Eiffel Tower for use in an advertisement, the bureaucrats representing the City of Paris said £10,000.

    The client didn’t think that was such a good idea any more.

    So they didn’t use it.

    I wanted it for this book, but I don’t think £10,000 is such a good idea either.

    So I didn’t ask. [Photo of Eiffel Tower]”

    I’m not affiliated with these people in any way, this article just reminds me of the books so they clearly made an impression—which is why they’re worth mentioning to anyone who is like myself interested in odd, non-conventional ideas and methods like the ones presented here!

    An idea I find interesting and very important to both my personal and business philosophy, is to “ask for forgiveness rather than permission”.

  • leorising

    Keeping time sheets and buying an espresso machine are hardly “outside the box” rules. :P

  • Liviu

    Cool article. I did not know about this book, but now I’m definitely going to buy it. Thanks.

  • The Nerdy Nurse

    I sure know how to snap the creativity out of me! Get a job that pays me for it… then all creativity ripped from my brain! Zap!

  • mr05

    I hope the time sheets and espresso machine post was satirical

  • Ggonzalezrivas

    My approach to creativity is similar, and is based on a quote that has become one of my life’s leading principles.
    “The reasonable man looks around and sees what can be done and what cannot be done and acts accordingly. The unreasonable rejects this distinction and does what should be done. Therefore all progress, throughout all human history, has been made by unreasonable people.”
    I urge you all to be unreasonable.

  • Jonesaaro

    People like this don’t often get hired or stay at a job too long. I know because I’m one of them. I have to suppress it to fit in anywhere.

  • Justine Spitzer

    George Bernard Shaw’s quote (from which your approach is adapted) is “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    His indictment is of the slow rate of change that is yoked to the obduracy of the unreasonable man.

    It is then indeed remarkable to consider all you’ve accomplished by being unreasonable–and entirely fair to wonder how much further you would have traveled had you chosen the other path.

  • Ericvenuto

    I love the approach. I would love to hear elaboration on these concepts. It feels a little bit vague.

  • GG

    Measuring output to determine productivity doesn’t work unless the employees are on board. If they don’t trust management – and who does? – they’ll simply do things in a way that looks like lots of activity but is actually 90% hot air under the hood.

  • Mike

    I spark creativity with this exercise: In the imagination, take any object and alter it’s properties, look at it, and see it doing something it wasn’t meant to do. For example, take printer ink…
    OK now it smells and taste like earl grey tea, now it is edible, now I can make tea with my old documents- one sugar with that?
    Its fun, and opens up possibilities.

  • Sandy Crespo

    Look at everything from a raw perspective. What are your elements? Forget how they “go together” throw everything in a pile & create something new & different from scratch.

  • GraphicDesignBoss


    Productivity – Imagine all of your designers walking to the cafe and back at for 15 minutes and there are 4 of them, that is one billable hour per day, 5 per week – and that is conservative! depending on your billing rate thats $500-600 per week on the size of my team.

    Creative – thats more personal for me. coffee, good music, great environment and my creativity increase along way

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    I don’t think I said it was outside the box, If you read above I said it was smart. $500 on an espresso machine and thousands of dollars saved.


    as I said to the bloke above, espresso machine is more for me in terms of creativity, that plus a good working environment = bloody good results.

    If you saw my crew queuing up for me to make them a latte then I think you would think again! they queue up every, single, day.

  • brbteatime

    Yes I’m a slower learner. Lol rule #4 really boosted my confidence XD

  • Dan Peck

    No mobiles till between 10am – 5pm on fridays.  Take the time away from the distraction of blackberrys to focus on creativity/productivity
    Check out DigitalSilence

  • Nancy

    mine is manure meditation – get my best ideas cleaning out the barn and horse pens

  • resume writing service

    very interesting psot! thanks!

  • Vinny

    can i find the F*ck Logic book in english somewhere? 

  • SimonJack

    I use animals as a way of breaking people out of their unfortunately disciplined business minds. Animals in the workplace are such a juxtaposition that people can’t help but react on a more emotional level and allow themselves to become inspired.
    You can check out this approach here… http://www.creativeencounters….

  • project1

    So your creativity is to eliminate coffee breaks…

  • project1

    so they queue up and that is time doing nothing. The only real difference is the coffee shop makes nothing

  • Jessa

    ANOTHER RULE: Fight the urge to fall into a routine. Walk into your place of work and pretend like every day is a new day (which it is…and if you are someone who has to remind themselves that every day is a new day, then you have already slumped into a routine and life is bound to, if not already, feel boring….soon).

    Fight routine,
    First and foremost, when it comes to your job.

  • bsaunders

    As one of those “low-self-monitoring” people mentioned, I hate this kind of rule. Turning off my electronic distractions, yes. The idea of imposing a rule to “make” people creative strikes me as patently ridiculous.

  • Ben Franke

    I take Alpha Brain to boost my creativity. Its a balanced nootropic, basically a blend of a bunch of beneficial nutrients that assist in elevating neurological components vital to remaining calm, focused, and mentally driven. It really helps with creative thinking and gives you really intense dreams too! Check it out at this link.

  • DRR

    You Know I felt like i couldn‘t be creative. I felt like all of my ideas were generic and not original. Lately I’ve started taking this stuff called Alpha brain After I watched Joe Rogans Podcast about it. Surprisingly it works extremely well. I feel this intense focus and my mind feels clear. Best of all I’m having crazy dreams that are so inspiring I feel like writing books again.

    Heres the website if your interested.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,151 other followers