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Weird Rules of Creativity - Think You Manage Creativity? Here's Why You're Wrong

The rational rules of management don't apply when it comes to fostering creative types. Or so says Stanford business professor Robert I. Sutton. His take on proper management techniques for the creative employee: "The practices go beyond counterintuitive; they seem down-right weird." In this Harvard Business Review excerpt, the author explains why you should, among other things, encourage creative workers to defy superiors and fight among themselves.

The Weird Rules of Creativity

Every company wants innovation, but few have developed methods for managing the process. That's because the normal rules for rational management don't apply, suggests author Sutton. In this excerpt on "managing for creative sparks," he describes the seemingly contradictory rules for getting creative people to be creative.

Once you've got your talent in the door, the next order of business is to do something with it. Again, my ideas will seem strange to people who believe that the best ways for managing routine tasks are equally well suited to innovative work, but they are supported by theory and practice. If it's creativity you want, you should encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers—and while you're at it, get them to fight among themselves. You should reassign people who have settled into productive grooves in their jobs. And you should start rewarding failure, not just success; reserve punishment only for inaction.

People who do what they think is right—rather than what they are told or what they anticipate their superiors want—can drive their bosses crazy and get their companies in deep trouble. But they also force companies to try ideas that some boss or powerful group may have rejected as a waste of time or money. 3M's former CEO William McKnight, for example, once ordered a young employee named Richard Drew to abandon a project he was working on, insisting it would never work. Drew disregarded the order and went on to invent masking tape, one of 3M's breakthrough products. Drew's perseverance also laid the foundation for 3M's defining product, Scotch tape.

Similarly, in The HP Way, David Packard brags about an employee who defied a direct order from him. "Some years ago," he writes, "at an HP laboratory in Colorado Springs devoted to oscilloscope technology, one of our bright, energetic engineers, Chuck House, was advised to abandon a display monitor he was developing. Instead he embarked on a vacation to California—stopping along the way to show potential customers a prototype." House was convinced he was on to something, so he persisted with the project, even persuading his R&D manager to rush the monitor into production. The resulting $35 million in revenue proved he was right. Packard continues: "Some years later, at a gathering of HP engineers, I presented Chuck with a medal for 'extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.'"

If it's creativity you want, you should encourage people to ignore and defy superiors—and, while you're at it—get them to fight among themselves.
— Robert I. Sutton

I've never seen an organization with guidelines such as, "Ignore your boss if you think he or she is wrong." If you work in a place that actually enforces a rule like this, please contact me immediately. I have, however, found companies where managers provide vague encouragement for employees to work on what they want and don't demand to know the details. This "don't ask, don't tell" policy is made explicit at 3M, where technical people are expected to allocate up to 15% of their time to projects of their own choosing. The same attitude and similar practices are seen at Corning's Sullivan Park R&D lab, which churns out hundreds of kinds of experimental glass each year. Scientists there are required to spend 10% of their time on "Friday afternoon experiments" to develop "slightly crazy ideas." This policy not only allows scientists to work on pet projects that bosses don't know about but also frees them to work on pet projects that superiors have discontinued. For instance, an entire genomics-technology business is being built on an idea that was officially killed by the head of research but was pursued in Friday afternoon experiments.

Keep the seed in the ground
In fact, creative work must be sheltered from the cold light of day, especially when ideas are incomplete and untested. William Coyne, former vice president of R&D at 3M, remarked in a speech at Motorola University, "After you plant a seed in the ground, you don't dig it up every week to see how it is doing." In an age of customer centricity, this may border on the heretical. But if you want to develop new products and services, I urge you to keep your creative people away from your biggest customers—and for that matter from critics and anyone whose primary concern is money.

Doing so helps creativity blossom. Psychological research shows that people are especially hesitant to try new things in front of "evaluative others" like critics and bosses. The virtues of doing innovative work in isolation are well documented. Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize—winning book, The Soul of a New Machine, describes an engineering team that was sequestered in the basement offices of Data General. Kidder shows how the resulting lack of attention helped the "MicroKids" on this "Eagle Team" do a better and faster job of designing a minicomputer. Kiyoshi Kawashima, former president of Honda, used a similar approach in 1978. He was concerned that Honda was losing its vitality because senior managers couldn't understand what kinds of cars young people wanted. Kawashima assembled the youngest members of his staff (average age 27) to design a car that would appeal to younger customers and promised that senior managers would not interfere with the team's operation. The result was the hot-selling Honda City Car. Few companies, it seems, are able to innovate without shielding teams from the mainstream.

At the same time, a company shouldn't let a team get too cozy. One of my most well supported ideas for managing creativity is that you should find some happy people and then get them to fight. Mind you, I'm not talking about provoking personality conflicts or relationship issues; battles between people who despise one another squelch innovation. The fights you need to cause are all about ideas. Bob Taylor, a psychologist turned research administrator, first encouraged this kind of conflict among the computer scientists from various universities he funded while at the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the 1960s and later at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. These scientists and engineers, perhaps more than any others, are responsible for the technologies that made the computer revolution possible, including the personal computer, the Internet, and the laser printer. The computer scientists Taylor funded through DARPA met at an annual series of research conferences, as retold by Michael Hiltzik:

"The daily discussions unfolded in a pattern that remained peculiar to Taylor's management style throughout his career. Each participant got an hour or so to describe his work. Then he would be thrown to the mercy of the assembled court like a flank steak to a pack of ravenous wolves. "I got them to argue with each other," Taylor recalled with unashamed glee. "These were people who cared about their work. If there were technical weak spots, they would almost always surface under these conditions. It was very, very healthy."

Reward failure
Enhancing innovation also has to do with how performance is rewarded. This, too, entails a dramatic departure from the management practices ingrained in most companies. Rather than rewarding success and punishing failure, companies should reward both.

Again, I must distinguish between what is right for routine work and what is right for creative work. When known procedures are used by well-trained people, failure does signal improper training, weak motivation, or poor leadership. But applying this standard to innovative work stifles intelligent risks. Every bit of solid theory and evidence demonstrates that it is impossible to generate a few good ideas without also generating a lot of bad ideas. Former Time Warner chairman Steve Ross had a philosophy that people who didn't make enough mistakes should be fired. That's an anomaly, though. Few companies tolerate failure, let alone reward it.

If you want a creative organization, inaction is the worst kind of failure—and the only kind that deserves to be punished. Researcher Dean Keith Simonton provides strong evidence from multiple studies that creativity results from action. Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn't succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues. In every occupation Simonton studied, from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced. These findings mean that measuring whether people are doing something—or nothing—is one of the ways to assess the performance of people who do creative work. Companies should demote, transfer, and even fire those who spend day after day talking about and planning what they are going to do but never do anything.

Excerpted with permission from "The Weird Rules of Creativity," Harvard Business Review, September 2001, Vol. 79, No. 8.

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Robert I. Sutton is a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University in Stanford, California. He is the author of Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (Free Press, November 2001), from which this article is adapted.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

by Robert I. Sutton

The relative age of a company is no guide to its creativity level; start-ups are as vulnerable as established companies. Consider what happened at Lotus Development in the mid-1980s. Lotus, now part of IBM, was founded in 1982 by Mitchell Kapor and Jonathan Sachs to bring to market their "killer app," Lotus 1-2-3. In just two years, sales grew from $53 million to $156 million, which led to an urgent need for experienced professional managers. McKinsey consultant James Manzi was brought in as president in 1984 and became CEO in 1985. Manzi built enormously profitable marketing and sales operations, modeling them after those of Fortune 500 companies.

But Lotus started having trouble developing successful new products. Part of the problem was that management techniques suitable only for managing routine work were being used throughout the company. By 1985 or so, around the time the company had grown to more than 1,000 employees, many original members felt that they no longer fit in. Most of the new hires were MBAs cut from the "big-company cloth," many having worked for such organizations as Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.

In 1985, Kapor (then chairman of the board) and Freada Klein (then head of organizational development and training) tried an experiment. With Kapor's approval, Klein pulled together the resumés of the first 40 people to join the company. She disguised the names and put them into the applicant pool. Some of these people had the right technical and managerial skills for the jobs they applied for, but they also had done a lot of "wacko and risky things." They had been community organizers, clinical psychologists, and transcendental meditation teachers (Koper included); several had lived at an ashram.

Not one of the applicants was called for an interview. Kapor and Klein viewed this as a sign that Lotus was unwittingly screening out innovative people. They seem to have been correct. Lotus Notes, the only hit product invented by the company after Lotus 1-2-3, was developed 20 miles from headquarters so as Klein puts it, "the team could work unfettered by the narrow Lotus culture." Lotus did need a great marketing and sales organization to cash in on its innovative ideas. The narrowness that came along with these changes, however, was a double-edged sword.

Excerpted with permission from "The Weird Rules of Creativity", Harvard Business Review, September 2001, Vol. 79, No. 8.