Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company
By Robert I. Sutton
–Review by Douglas Balzer
As a resident of the metro area of Portland Oregon, there is an attraction to the title of this book due to the word Weird in its title. The famous slogan for Portland Oregon is “Keep Portland Weird.” It developed to become the motto of Portland from humble beginnings in support of local businesses to a sweeping mantra for the city and its population. As one of these residents, the influence of the ideology of liking the unconventional has rubbed off on me a bit too. Okay, a lot. Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company is a book that feeds the soul with the unique and bizarre intonation. I like to call it the practice of positive deviance.
Robert I. Sutton is a professor at Stanford University. He teaches in the areas of the psychology of business and management. Precisely, he is the professor of management science and engineering. The print date is 2007, and the research is even a bit older from 2002, making this dated material. However, the concepts are exceptionally relevant for today. In many ways, Sutton reminds me of Seth Godin in his style of writing and his challenging of the conventional. The book was a quick read and enjoyable. It made me laugh because I was able to see some of my ideologies at work in the stories and experiences Sutton shared in the text.
Maybe you are asking, why another business book? Through a thorough examination of the content of the book, there is an evident connection with the context of the church. Recently, in a conversation, it was observed that a certain denomination (which will remain unnamed) possesses more Pastors with MBA degrees than MDiv’s. Therefore, when a book like Sutton’s comes available, it pushes against the MBA degree status quo of doing business as usual. No, I am not saying having an MBA is the wrong degree to have in ministry. What I am saying is that it detracts from the spiritual and theological training a Minister should have in leading a congregation. An MBA is a complimentary degree in my opinion. Sutton’s weird ideas lead forward to a culture of leadership that is a nuanced relationship-oriented model of leadership more suited for the congregational setting and denominational leadership levels. His ideas are broadly applicable to many disciplines and contexts.
Sutton gives 11 ½ weird ideas in his presentation. Yes, 11 ½ ideas. It was odd to think about this configuration, but it made sense diving into the content. Sutton deals with a critical issue for us as followers of Christ. Presently, a meaningful dialogue is taking place about the church in culture. Church groups are seeking ways to revitalize, reconfigure, and innovate the church’s presence relevant to culture. The reason Sutton’s ideas are important for the church is that he deals with the critical issue of the tension that exists between execution and creativity. Execution is about doing things consistently with excellence, while creativity is about changing ‘things, nuanced activities, or contexts’ and being willing to fail.
Sutton has three main themes he suggests for the explorer or those seeking creative innovation. First, knowledge is available, and accessing it comes through increasing the variance quotient of your information collection and team members. Second, he proposes perceiving old things in new ways. Third, you need a willingness to break from the past. He suggests leaning back into the past while moving forward into the future. In this way, Sutton acts as a futurist in his ideologies. He directs the reader to practice an intuitive foresight to see the future through the lens of our past experiences.
Now, there is not enough room to delineate all of Sutton’s 11 ½ weirds ideas, so I want to address a select few for your consideration. Besides, I do not want to do a spoiler. It is my intent to whet your appetite for these weird ideas, so that you will pick up the book and read it. Here are the hand-picked strange ideas that resonate with my research in the area of positive deviance.
Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you don’t like.
This idea challenges the conservative ideology of hiring employees or creating relationships with people you partner with in business or ministry who are like-minded with you. The avoidance of conflict according to Sutton is what stifles creativity. Non-thinking grows when everyone is in agreement. If you only hire people you like, well, all you get is more of the same stuff you already have. People need others who will make them squirm and feel uncomfortable by shaking up the status quo. By implementing this idea, the opportunity to receive an influx of new ideas enhances the creative dynamics of the team. In brief, by having a more diverse pool of talent, the more likely you are to get creative and innovative thinking taking place. My mind went to Jesus’ method of selecting his disciples. Take a look at his team, and the diversity represented there, and you might capture the relevance of this weird idea for application in the church today.
Reward success and failure, not inaction
The primary purpose is to establish an environment of creativity and risk, to genuinely encourage people to continue to come up with new innovative thoughts and ideas. Just rewarding success is not enough. Rewarding failure is critical to the creative process according to Sutton. Failure is not a dead end. It is a pathway for learning, where the best ideas can emerge. Whenever a church, organization, or a movement tries to eliminate failures, it also disenfranchises innovation and discourages risk taking. It does not mean there is no room for the tried and true. What it means is that the pathway to improvement is forged by finding ways to fail faster and learning as much as possible in the journey. Innovative ideas are just on the other side of failure. Here my mind went to the three servants who was charged to invest money for the ruler. Two took risks and were rewarded, while the third chose inaction receiving punishment in the end.
Think of some impractical things and then plan on doing them
Yes, a suggestion that resonates with my soul. Here is one of the most creative ideas Sutton suggests. Some will argue that there is no value in the concept, but I beg to differ, and here is why I support this weird idea. Looking at history, we can observe that some of the most creative breakthroughs transpired when people practiced doing the impractical and ridiculous. Yes, it sounds and feels completely counterintuitive to developing a cohesive group. Okay, I concede the feeling, but Sutton supports this idea by recognizing that when actions are taken to reverse or challenge assumptions taken for granted, it can open the opportunity for breakthroughs. He suggests that a creative person must foremost think differently. Now, the reality of practicing this idea is easier said than done. When we practice different activities, it encourages creative thinking. Whimsical activities have been known to lead to creative ideas that were lying just under the surface of an action. It has happened in the past. It is plausible, it will happen again.
These examples of Sutton’s weird ideas are the ones that resonated with my personal ideology of positive deviance. Hopefully, you will pick up the book, read it for yourself, draw out what you find right, and make use of it in your life or context. I recommend approaching the book with an open mind. To conclude this review, it should be obvious, these are not irrefutable ideas. The application of Weird Ideas is going to be different depending on the context you find yourself in at any given moment. The most important take away from Sutton’s Weird Ideas is the curiosity and fun quotient involved in reading and applying ‘weird thoughts.’ Please, read the book and have some fun with it. Maybe you might even discover something new about yourself in the process. Stay curious.