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The Weird Rules of Creativity

The Idea in Brief

Hire people you don't like, then promote them when they defy you. Wholeheartedly commit to risky projects. Get your happiest workers arguing. And keep your innovators away from customers.

Recipes for disaster? No, fuel for innovation.

Traditional management practices apply when you need to make money now from tried-and-true products and services--but they don't foster creativity.

To innovate, companies must ignore longstanding management wisdom and adopt downright weird ways. Unnerving, yes, but consider the payoffs: broadened knowledge, fresh perspectives on old problems, and the freedom to break from the past.

The Idea in Practice

To encourage creativity, take these counterintuitive approaches to hiring, managing, and risk-taking:


Recruit people who aren't blinded by preconceptions, including:

  • mavericks and misfits who drive bosses and coworkers crazy because they reject popular opinion and bull-headedly champion their own ideas.

When new hires at a toy company pointed out current products' flaws, their behavior made senior executives "hate them." But the complainers kept generating great new-toy ideas. The lesson? Intentionally hire unlikable, creative people.

  • people with seemingly irrelevant skills

Design Continuum hires engineers who have moonlighted as sculptors, carpenters, graffiti artists, and rock musicians. Their offbeat backgrounds provide a broad palette of product-design ideas to try in new ways.

  • novices who don't know how things are "supposed to be"; e.g., Dyson Appliances, maker of the hottest-selling vacuum cleaner in the U.K., employs new university graduates.
  • experts in some unrelated area

Ballard Power Systems hired chemistry professor Keith Prater to develop batteries, though he lacked related experience. Prater proceeded to generate breakthroughs in fuel-cell technology that may replace internal combustion.


Encourage people to defy superiors and peers.

When HP executives advised Chuck House to abandon a monitor he was developing, he went on vacation--and showed potential customers a prototype. Ultimately, House's monitor generated $35 million in revenue. Founder David Packard gave him a medal for "extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty."

Keep creative types away from customers, critics--and anyone focused only on money. Sequestered in basement offices, Data General's "MicroKids" designed a minicomputer better and faster than if they had worked under critics' and bosses' eyes.

Get happy people fighting about ideas; they'll surface weak spots in each other's thinking.

Reward successes and failures. You can't generate a few good ideas without also generating numerous bad ones. Demote, transfer, or fire people who talk and plan but don't act.


Risky projects' odds of succeeding increase with wholehearted commitment. Therefore, back projects that have the most dedicated, persuasive heretics on board. You can't eliminate risk entirely, but you can ensure new ideas aren't biased by knowledge of past successes.

At software firm Reactivity's brainstorming meetings, employees jot technologies on one stack of index cards and industries on another--then randomly pair them. Both useless and promising new-product and applications ideas emerge.

Copyright 2002 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


How to Kill Creativity

Harvard Business Review

September-October 1998

by Teresa M. Amabile

It's not easy being weird. After all, businesses do need order and control to function day to day. But order and control can inadvertently undermine employees' ability to reconfigure existing ideas in creative and valuable ways. To foster an innovative workplace, of course you need to tap into people's expertise and creative-thinking skills. But most important, you must fire up their intrinsic motivation--their passion for particular challenges. Match them with assignments that stretch them (but not too thin), give them freedom within company goals (that is, tell them which mountain to climb--but not how to climb it), give them plenty of time to play with ideas, and let them know that what they do matters.

Putting Your Company's Whole Brain to Work

Harvard Business Review

July-August 1997

by Dorothy Leonard and Susaan Straus

Innovative types may seem abrasive--but creative abrasion can work wonders for your firm's ability to innovate. To achieve this fecund form of friction, make employees' different cognitive styles rub together in ways that spark fresh, original thinking. The authors explain the various thinking styles--including logical, analytical ("left-brain") and nonlinear, intuitive ("right-brain"). They then show how to create "whole-brained" teams by assessing your own and your team members' styles, identifying gaps, hiring people who embody any missing styles, and actively managing the creative process (e.g., taking time to acknowledge team members' differences and devising clear, simple guidelines for handling conflicts).


Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation

Free Press

November 2001

by Robert I. Sutton

Want more weirdness? Take a gander at this quirky book--from which Sutton adapted his Harvard Business Review article. The book codifies all of Sutton's counterintuitive ideas for turning your company from staid and safe to wild and woolly. Sutton draws on extensive research in behavioral psychology to support his recommendations. As he explains, the practices companies need to sustain performance are in constant tension with those that give rise to new ideas. But striking a balance between the two kinds of practices is possible--and essential. Sutton provides many examples of how some of the most creative teams and companies, from a broad range of industries, are inventing novel--and highly profitable--products and services.

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