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Weird Ideas That Spark Innovation

Managers don’t have to be told that to innovate they need to embrace drastically different practices from the ones they use for routine work. So why don’t they do it? According to Robert I. Sutton, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for Work, Technology and Innovation, when business leaders see what innovation actually requires, they often recoil. The right practices seem strange, even wrongheaded. Understandably, it’s hard for any executive to take action that will lose money today in order to test ideas that might never make money — in hopes one idea will make money tomorrow.

Nevertheless, Sutton contends, that is just what cutting-edge companies do, bravely tackling ideas that at first blush seemed weird. From his research on such organizations, Sutton has developed eight techniques to move teams and companies from working by rote to innovating. The first two techniques are designed to provoke emotions that interrupt mindless action (provoke unpleasant emotions in others; make yourself uncomfortable). The second two are for smashing mindsets (treat everything like a temporary condition; ignore the experts). The third two help people identify and reject their dearest beliefs (plan to do something ridiculous; hold a sacred “cow” workshop). The last two are for exploding the composition of organizations and teams (bring in some slow learners; keep changing the composition of teams).

Sutton cautions, however, that the exact methods a company uses to spark novel ideas and actions should differ depending on the situation. He recommends giving people freedom to play around with a wide variety of offbeat notions until bringing in new knowledge and helping people see old things in new ways finally enables the company to break from the past.

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