Counter-culture tactics for nurturing innovation

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 December 2002



Davidson, A. (2002), "Counter-culture tactics for nurturing innovation", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 30 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2002, MCB UP Limited

Counter-culture tactics for nurturing innovation

Alistair Davidson is Managing Partner of Eclicktick Corporation, Palo Alto, California and the author of two recent books, Turn Around! (a free e-book available at and Riding the Tiger, on best practices in information management. He has helped start-ups, turn arounds, business incubators and large, high tech firms improve their strategy, marketing and sales performance (

Weird Ideas That Work: 11½ Practices for Promoting, Managing and Sustaining Innovation

Robert SuttonFree PressNew York, NY2000

Robert Sutton, a professor of engineering at Stanford, has written a charming and provocative book about nurturing innovation. His is that rare business book that catches us off guard with a surprising perspective and then proposes a set of radical practices that seem thoroughly sensible, if you accept his premise. His 11½ "weird" ideas include:

(1) Hire slow learners of the organizational "code".(1½) Hire people who make your uncomfortable, even those you dislike.(2) Hire people you probably don't need.(3) Use job interviews to get ideas not to screen candidates.(4) Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers.(5) Find some happy people and get them to fight.(6) Reward success and failure. Punish inaction.(7) Decide to do something that will probably fail, and then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain.(8) Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do, and then plan to do them.(9) Avoid, distract, and bore customers, critics and anyone who just wants to talk about money.(10) Do not try to learn anything from people who seem already to have solved the problem you face.(11) Forget the past, especially your company's successes.

The challenge of reading Sutton's book is that his examples and research have an instant appeal, much like a pie thrown in the face of corporate cultural complacency. But they also force the reader to think about under what circumstances his apparently bizarre rules are appropriate or inappropriate.

Some readers will be put off by the one-line summaries of the rules. Each one deliberately defies the conventional wisdom of strategy, corporate culture and management assumptions that are in common practice. The conventional wisdom of management theory today is not designed to routinely produce radical innovation. The goal of this system is "radically better"/not "radically different":

  • Create a corporate culture of excellence.

  • Design systems to encourage focus in order to bring the right resources to the key problems.

  • Manage risk by a methodical approach to measurement using approaches like the balanced scorecard.

  • Have a clear marketing message about what you stand for. Repeat it endlessly.

  • Build on your core competence and past successes.

  • Use a formal review process to manage new product innovation.

In contrast, the unifying theme of Sutton's approach is: encourage managers to recruit the oddballs that are likely to produce genuine innovation and then build a fire under them. His message is that companies tend to underestimate and undervalue the range of solutions that could trigger the creation of great new products. The usual bias of companies is towards incremental and low risk product development. However, when product development at the edge of the envelope occurs, a homogeneous culture and a narrow outlook of the management team may prevent execution success.

Without explicitly saying so, Sutton is arguing for diversity of thought, behavior and style. Perhaps it is no surprise that he has many contacts in California's Silicon Valley, an area of diverse immigration where the culture of management is anything but traditional. But if his book has a problematic bias, it tends to be towards a technology-push style of innovation – which has in most cases been the downfall of innovative Californian companies that have often been weak on the market research and marketing side of business.

To the extent that Sutton's rules spur an organization to create a truly unique product or service, implementing the contrarian ideas from his book makes sense. However, if his counterintuitive proposals cause companies to stop focusing product development on the core characteristics that make for high customer value, then the book could do damage.

Sutton's book is almost guaranteed to provoke arguments, especially among fans of Robert Cooper, author of Product Leadership (Perseus, 1998), who has spent the past 20 years researching the characteristics of new products. Cooper's conclusions and its implications could be summarized as follows:

  • The single strongest predictor of new product success is offering a customer a perceivable high value differentiated product.

  • Value varies by segment.

  • A great deal of innovation comes from customers, not from the developing organization.

  • Early and fast customer experience can lead to dramatic increases in value proposition if customer input is fed back into the product development process.

  • Late to market is very costly.

  • Early to market is key but not at the expense of the quality of the product.

  • Crisp and early product definition and cross-functional teams lead to faster and more successful products.

  • Bad or non-existent market research is the leading cause of new product failure.

  • Marketing execution makes a significant difference to new product success.

  • Use frequent reviews of new product projects to measure how far the project has advanced and kill off bad projects as early as possible.

Sutton criticizes Cooper's stage-gate approach, the review system that many high tech companies have adopted for monitoring projects and killing off the failing or low value ones. In Sutton's experience, companies that adopt stage-gate, or similar approaches, risk burdening new product development with excessive bureaucracy. Cooper's admirers point out that the use the stage-gate system correctly does not put bureaucratic hurdles in the path of promising projects. And the arguments will go on.

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