Weird Ideas That Work

by Robert Sutton

A light, fluffy read on innovative thinking, Sutton gives 11 ½ practices that can help stimulate creativity by doing exactly what conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t. Each practice is described and illustrated with anecdotes. These anecdotes are on the surface rhetorically powerful, but they are ultimately meaningless in terms of understanding how these “weird ideas” work or how to apply them in your situation.

Beyond the anecdotal, Sutton provides the reader with no hard evidence, theoretical framework or even comparison to “control” anecdotes. In other words, the book is pure ethos rhetorical persuasion, rather than an insightful exploration of innovation’s dynamics. As such its value is almost entirely heuristic (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

Reading this book I was left with a growing discomfort: perhaps all of Sutton’s anecdotes are merely exceptions that prove the rule, and that for every success story he shares about a weird idea, there are I’m sure thousands of failure stories he conveniently ignores. Yes Sutton starts off with a short cautionary about the risks and dangers associated with creativity and innovation, returning to it briefly on the last couple pages—but that’s it.

Exacerbating my discomfort is Sutton’s frequent reliance on example companies that have by now failed (Reactivity, Zaplet), shriveled in quiet defeat (idealab, palm) or companies that are the usual suspects (IDEO, Apple)—surely there’s more to innovation than IDEO and Apple.

Furthermore, the weird ideas presented often contradict each other. One tip suggests ignoring what other people think. Another tip suggests mixing teams up so they don’t get too close and start ignoring other people. Frustratingly Sutton doesn’t even acknowledge such contradictions.

Weird Ideas That Work is essentially a decent article blownup to fill an entire book. As such you don’t need to buy it. It will be enough to merely read the short list of 11 ½ weird ideas, and consider what they mean for yourself. That said many of the ideas do strike me as things that are well worth trying. Innovation and creativity are a sort of alchemy—so maybe we need to approach them counter-intuitively.

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