Weird is good: why dissonance fosters innovation

As published by Idealog on July 16, 2015.

I recently overheard someone talking about a cutting-edge leadership workshop they'd just attended.

"It was weird," he said.

"Weird good or weird bad?" I asked.

The question caused my erstwhile friend to pause mid-sentence. "Weird good...I think..."

He then admitted that the "weirdness" caused him to veer from his usual approach to leadership. In fact, due to the unusual methods the facilitators had used, he'd experienced an epiphany about a problem he'd been grappling with for months.

Innovation and creative problem-solving are quickly becoming the most powerful competitive tools an organisation can have in their toolkit.

But creativity hates sameness. It doesn't live in the realm of routine or in the comfort of normality. It despises predictability and stability. Creativity resides at the outer edges of the bell curve.

Dissonance and discord may be less pleasant to experience and more difficult to manage than harmony and consonance, but they're far more likely to provide fertile ground for creative breakthroughs.

So, what does this mean for you as a leader?

If you want to foster an environment that cultivates creativity, you need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In fact, you need to do more than that. You need to seek it out.

Both science and the arts have long known the power of weird.

Jaron Lanier, in his article, "Two Philosophies of Mathematical Weirdness" saw it in the world of maths:

"A strange thing happened to the philosophy of mathematics in the past century or so: Mathematics increasingly revealed truths about itself that utterly confounded the expectations of philosophers. In other words, math got weird. A century ago, math was thought to be an orderly Platonic phenomenon, imperious in its perfection. The first prominent onset of weirdness came in 1931, when Kurt Gödel indexed mathematical ideas in a way that was somewhat analogous to the way the Web is now indexed by services such as Google. That computational framework began to give mathematicians a completely new perspective." Kurt knew weird.

Music is another realm where dissonance and discord has lead to creative brilliance:

The premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring, just over a century ago in Paris, incited a riot. It was one of the most notorious performances of the 20th century.

Why? It was different. It was unexpected. It was just plain ‘weird’.

In his article about the 100-year anniversary of the The Rite of Spring, Amar Toon says:

“Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.”

Routine, rigidity and monotony are villains of creativity. They make us lazy and complacent.

So how can leaders embrace discord and dissonance to foster innovation? Here are five ways:

1. Use the Creative Whack Pack by world expert on creativity, Roger Van Oech, as often as you can. This nifty little creative tool (which has been around for ages) is like your own little pocket book of weirdness. It’s brilliant for looking at things differently and engaging your right brain, the place where creativity resides. You can use it with your team when faced with a problem or opportunity, or even when you are personally stuck and need to adopt weird to move forward.

2. Learn to manage and cultivate conflicting opinions. Detest groupthink. Encourage people to come up with the “idea that will get you fired”. Start with that and then pull it back a little. But make sure you have fostered trust and psychological safety first.

3. Put weird on your radar. If you notice words like 'bizarre', 'strange', 'odd' or even 'off the wall' flying around the office, this is your cue to perk up and follow the trail.

4. Embrace rebels in your team. My dad, who was an expert on gifted and talented children, commented that sometimes the kids who challenged the norm (and got into trouble) were the brightest. The same applies to the rebels in your organisation; those people who may regularly upset the apple cart or challenge sacred cows. Don't outright dismiss what they are saying, but rather listen to your 'outliers'. They may be onto something.

5. Have your next team building at an art gallery! Every time I look at art which at first seem weird, or even somehow annoys me, I'm mesmerised by their slightly off-beat nature. As the weirdness of their art draws me in, I'm OK knowing I'm wooing weird.

How can you embrace "weird is good" in your team?


February 10, 2016 AT 4:59AM

Great post here

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