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Keep ideas growing like mushrooms

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If you’ve ever led a creative team, you know that you have to shield it from the bean counters, the marketers and the salespeople ... especially when ideas are new.

“After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing,” says William Coyne, former vice president of research and development at 3M.

To cultivate hardy new products and services, you even have to commit heresy: Keep your creative people away from your biggest customers, critics and anyone whose main concern is money.

That’s why innovating in isolation works so well. Examples: an engineering team literally holed up like mushrooms in the basement of Data General. Honda used a similar approach in 1978 by assembling its youngest employees to design a hip car, promising the team that senior managers wouldn’t bother them.

Still, you can’t let people entrench too deeply. Find some serious innovators,and let them slug it out over competing ideas. That’s what happened at the Defense Department’s DARPA team in the 1960s, which invented the beta version of the Internet.

“Each participant got an hour or so to describe his work,” one scientist recounted. “Then, he would be thrown to the mercy of the assembled court like a flank steak to a pack of ravenous wolves.”

“If there were technical weak spots,” one research administrator added, “they would almost always surface under these conditions. It was very, very healthy.”

The lessons here are few but powerful:

1. Find motivated, creative types.

2. Keep them in relative isolation.

3. Prod them to vet their work mercilessly.

— Adapted from “The Weird Rules of Creativity,” Robert I. Sutton, Harvard Business Review.

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