Design, Develop, Create

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Provoking creativity

Creative companies and teams can be “remarkably inefficient and often terribly annoying places to work, where ‘managing by getting out of the way’ is often the best approach of all.” (Sutton, 2001) Management is generally characterized as the activity of organizing, leading, controlling an organization to achieve stated goals such as producing profit or value (often a social good) efficiently while constrained by limited resources. General management is about managing routine work using well proven rules, procedures, policies etc. Managing for creativity however is counterintuitive to general management practice. Sutton presents what he terms a set of weird ideas illustrate how to hire, and manage creative work (below).

Creativity Management (anti-)Principles, from (Sutton, 2001)
  • Place bets on ideas without heeding projected ROI.
  • Radical innovation implies ignoring what worked before.
  • Take happy people and goad them into disagreement.
  • Reward action, success AND failure.
  • Have people who don’t fit in.
  • Disagreements are necessary.
  • Use new employees to bring in NEW ideas.
  • Generate and use NEW ideas.
Sutton contrasts these weird ideas against the conventional ideas implicit in general management practice. The ideas are counterintuitive because for most organizations only a tiny fraction of effort is spent developing new products and services. They provoke discomfort because “rare and unfamiliar things provide negative evaluations.” (Sutton, 2001) The practices Sutton highlights will seem ‘wrong’ simply because they are different to current accepted norms of best practice. We are all subject to the psychology of ‘difference’ and so these ideas for promoting creativity will seem wrong-headed and counterintuitive.
Decide to do something that will probably…
“there is one simple, proven, and powerful thing you can do to increase the likelihood that a risky project will succeed: Commit to it wholeheartedly.” (Sutton, 2001)
The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ argument relies on somebody taking ownership. The idea is closely related to the concept of the entrepreneur. Someone in the organization makes up his or her mind that this idea is good and runs with it (for example, the case of Tom West at Data General (Kidder, 1981)).
“Henry Ford put it more succinctly: ‘If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you are right.” (Sutton, 2001)
The consequence of this kind of thinking is
“if you can’t decide which new projects or ideas to bet on based on their objective merits, pick those that will be developed by the most committed and persuasive heretics.” (Sutton, 2001)
Seek out…
Ways to avoid setting out how the project ends, how much it will cost, how much it will return. Adopt the idea that the person behind the project is a visionary heretic. The notion is that really creative and innovative work often ignores the narrow incremental requirements of customers and others with their own quite short-range views of what can and should be done.
Think of some…
“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.” (Sutton, 2001) p101
“Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced…. [therefore] measuring whether people are doing something – or nothing – is one of the ways to assess the performance of people who do creative work.” (Sutton, 2001) p102
Reward… If creativity is a function of quantity of work produced then we should reward for both success and failure. Managers, experts (even customers initially) do a poor job of judging what will succeed and what won’t. There is little evidence that using stage-gates and other gating reviews improve the probability of eventual success (Sutton, 2001) p102.
Find some happy people… Find happy people and get them to disagree. Disagreements are about ideas and disagreement can generate a productive dynamic. Bob Taylor’s DARPA research conferences were an example of this kind of engaged critique.
“’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.’” (Sutton, 2001) p101.
Hire… Hire someone you don’t need, indeed hire someone who has never solved the kind of problems you are faced with (Sutton, 2001) p98. Furthermore, hire slow learners who resist picking up the ‘company way’ or who won’t do it ‘the right way,’ they ensure that things can be seen ‘different.’ They may be high-self esteem people who can stay convinced of the worth of their own ‘different’ ideas, or they may simply be insensitive to other’s perceptions of their positions, ‘low self-monitors.’ Being insensitive or resistant to conforming pressures is a valuable trait if an individual has to go against the flow to bring an idea to fruition.
“Confident people continue to believe in their ideas despite rejection and criticism.” (Sutton, 2001) p98
Sutton refers to the example of Gary Starkweather at the famed Xerox PARC research laboratory. In 1968 he felt compelled to follow his conviction that laser imaging was superior to incandescent light. Starkweather complained about ‘laboratory dogma’ that resisted his line of research and experimentation. He was transferred to PARC and as a result he (and Xerox) ultimately launched the first commercial laser printer. Some people get around the selection problem by pretending to fit in with the ‘company way’ but it takes courage to stand out. Varied backgrounds offer unexpected resources for problem solving and idea generation.

Take your past experiences… Forget them, or at least don’t expect them to provide the answer to today’s problem.

Use job interviews… Naïveté is useful, people from other areas, disciplines, and experience see problems in new ways, and they bring a fresh perspective. In the case of Lotus in the early days the management team applied a decidedly fresh and unstructured approach to selecting and hiring people. Lotus Corporation’s CEO, Mitch Kapor (programmer, capitalist, meditation teacher and counselor) had grown the company with spreadsheet package Lotus 1-2-3 and riding on the success of the IBM PC (Rosenberg, 2007). Once bigger than Microsoft, by 1984 Mitch eventually brought in a professional management team to solve the incredible problems of managing large-scale product development and thousands of employees. But the culture and environment changed in the process. In 1985 Kapor and Freda Klein…
“…tried an experiment. With Kapor’s approval, Klein pulled together the résumés of the first 40 people to join the company. She disguised the names and put them into the applicant pool… Not one of the applicants was called for an interview.”
(Sutton, 2001)
Ignore people who have…
“In the creative process ignorance is bliss,” (Sutton, 2001) p99
In the Pulitzer prize winning account of Data General’s Eagle mini-computer project (Kidder, 1981) Tracey Kidder recorded Carl Alsing ’s rationale for pairing the experienced Dave Peck with the talented novice Neal Firth. Consider the situation faced by Alsing when he decided that a software simulator was needed
“Alsing realized that a program to simulate Eagle would be huge. It might take a seasoned programmer a year and a half to write such a thing, he figured. But Alsing kept these calculations to himself… Alsing considered the situation. He had two confident programmers – one relatively inexperienced, the other reluctant.” (Kidder, 1981)
The engineer Firth particularly, didn’t know it couldn’t be done.

Encourage people…
“to avoid getting stuck in a rut… be especially wary of opinions from customers who use their current products or services, and from the marketing and sales people who represent their views.”
(Sutton, 2001)
Alan Cooper (2003) warns against the foibles of being ‘Customer Driven.’ Users should not be the source of design decisions, although they are often its victims. The user may know what is wrong but will rarely know the best way to resolve the problem.

Brooks suggests that systems architecture must have conceptual integrity; that a system should present an interdependent and integrated set of design ideas.
“[T]he setting of external specifications is not more creative work than the designing of implementations. It is just different creative work.” (Brooks Jr., 1995).
Creativity Ethos… A caution; using tried and true methods is a wise approach to manage a company.
“But if part of your mission is to explore new possibilities, then your goal must be to build a culture that supports constant mindfulness and experimentation. [my emphasis]. … It should be an arena, a constant and constructive context, where the best ideas win.” (Sutton, 2001) p103

Sutton’s analysis is insightful and his presentation employs his counter-idea itself, the concept of opposite, counterintuitive choices, as a necessary aspect of creativity. The presentation of creative management is itself an exercise in counterintuitive decision making. Clearly there is a distinction between the activities of producing the same product and service, and producing something new and innovative.

The coexistence of the two objectives within the same business units must inevitably be problematic, particularly if each is successful, because their cultures and behaviour are so radically different. Sutton’s ideas could be construed as mandating a kind of ‘anti-organization,’ nearly all the tenets destabilize the strands and behaviours generally construed to contribute to stability and operational interaction.