Try these management tactics to encourage innovation

If you're trying to get results from creative people, toeing the standard management line isn't always the route to success. The author of a new management book suggests some unorthodox methods to try.

Perhaps you read books on how to manage, attend management seminars, or ask advice from trusted colleagues in your quest to try a new approach or to refine your tactics. No matter your method of managing or researching, after a while, a lot of the conventional wisdom can start to sound repetitive and, sometimes, not truly relevant to IT. If you're looking for a jolt for your management skills, consider these ideas:
  • The best management style is sometimes no management at all.
  • Encouraging innovation often means getting out of the way and letting superperformers work in their own ways. That can mean excusing them from meetings and sliding work assignments under their door to keep their creative juices flowing undisturbed.
  • If they deem work assignments to be ridiculous, don’t push them into doing them. Superproducers are not to be chastised for openly defying corporate protocol.
  • Allowing employees to break the rules or defy management is OK if an employee is working on an innovative project or feels passionately about the work.

That’s just a sampling of the offbeat advice from Robert I. Sutton, author of Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (The Free Press, $18.20). Sutton is professor of management science and engineering at Stanford’s Engineering School. His entire book is chock full of advice that most traditional managers would consider lunatic.

“Many companies are innovative despite management,” Sutton said. “But, if you want to see real innovation, often you have to hire defiant rule-breakers who don’t think much of corporate culture.”

Defiance is often triggered by company executives “who have little to no knowledge about the work they are managing,” he said.

Successful products from rebellious workers
Contrarian Sutton makes his point by citing real-world anecdotes. For example, masking tape, which turned out to be one of 3M’s most successful products, was invented because an employee defied an order from his CEO to stop the unauthorized work and return to his job in quality control.

Or, take the case of Bill Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett Packard (HP), who ordered an engineer to abandon work on a display monitor he was developing. Instead, the engineer took a vacation so he could demonstrate a prototype product to customers. Their positive reaction was motivation for him to persuade his R&D manager to rush the monitor into production. HP sold more than 17,000 monitors, yielding revenues of $35 million.

Sutton also makes reference to former CEO of the Atari Corporation, Norman Bushnell, who said, “Sometimes the best engineers come in bodies that can’t talk.” Bushnell turned his back on the traditional team-player corporate mentality encouraged by most companies and instead hired loners, Sutton said.

Bushnell said that the most innovative people may lack social graces and prefer to spend time alone with their thoughts and ideas. “They may be difficult to talk to and may not like working on teams,” he said. “But they do increase the range of ideas in a company and are appreciated in every innovative company.”

Sutton’s advice to managers is to follow the lead of David Kelley, CEO and founder of IDEO, a product development company, and “hire a bunch of smart people and stay out of the way until they ask for help.”

“If you tell them what to do, you make it harder for them to do creative work,” Sutton said.

Considering the risks
However appealing and innovative it may sound, much of Sutton’s advice can be dangerous. Most companies, even the trendsetters, still are guided by traditional management standards. Companies typically become more bureaucratic as they get bigger and develop clear lines of authority that all employees are expected to follow.

“You have to make a calculation about what you can show and what you can hide,” Sutton advised. “Some companies are completely open; others are not. That’s the way the world works.”

This affects not only the way you present your own ideas, but also the way you assess ideas from your managers and other staff members. As an IT executive, think twice about vetoing a project that an employee is enthusiastic about. Give the person a chance to argue his or her case. A rule-breaker stands an excellent chance of winning if he or she can prove that a new idea will lead to increased revenues.

How does your company view risk-takers?
Does everyone toe the line, or are there safe channels for new ideas? Would one of your managers feel comfortable bringing a unique proposal to your attention? Tell us how receptive your company is to innovation.


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