There's No Such Thing as a Bad Idea. Or Is There?
At some point, every experienced brainstormer has heard the expression, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea!” In fact, it just might be the #1 “rule” of brainstorming.
But is it really true? Aren’t there at least a few bad ideas lurking in the shadows?
Most of us have at least a vague understanding of the expression’s meaning—but many of us just don’t buy it. In our SmartStorming training sessions, when we introduce this notion, a heated debate typically ensues. There is always one participant, and often many more, who challenge the notion that bad ideas don’t exist. “Of course there are bad ideas. If we all decided to jump out of the window right now, that would be a bad idea.”
Where It All Began
The “no bad idea” mantra is not a new one. Alex Osborn, considered by many to be the father of brainstorming, believed that in order to be successful at brainstorming, participants must “suspend judgment.” Osborn, like most savvy brainstorm leaders, understood the perils of what happens when people start criticizing ideas in the midst of a session. And most every effective group idea generation methodology continues the tradition.
So why do so many people feel so passionately that there are, indeed, bad ideas—ideas so bad they should be stopped in their tracks, prevented from wasting the time and energy of the group?
To learn more, we decided to post this question on LinkedIn, and see just how varied the responses would be: “We've all heard the expression, there are no bad ideas. Do you agree? If not, why? If so, what does the expression mean to you?” Here is a small sampling of the range of different responses:
- “Of course, there are bad ideas. When your product does not meet customer [expectations], it’s a bad idea.”
- “In the army they used to say the only stupid question is the one not asked. There are plenty of stupid ideas but everyone should have the opportunity to express [them].”
- “We are taught to encourage everyone to say only positive things to other's suggestions and keep everything nice and rosy. Unless you want to sit around a campfire, sing kum ba ya and make s’mores, this is ludicrous!
- “There are many bad ideas out there, like harming oneself or others, taking advantage of others, and making foolish financial and business decisions.”
- “Jumping out of an airplane without a parachute: a BAD idea… Buying MySpace for billions: a BAD idea.”
- “I've sat in brainstorming sessions where ‘there are no bad ideas.’ Um, there are. OK, some trigger innovative thinking. But, most just waste time. Unfortunately, many people just like to hear themselves talk.”
The debate, it seems, goes on and on.
So...are there bad ideas, or not?
Well, it all depends on how you look at it.
There are obviously ideas that appear unfeasible, impractical, irrational, harmful and potentially devastating. No one of sound mind would propose implementing such an idea, assuming they truly believed it to be “bad.”
The real question is not whether such ideas are “bad,” but rather, should those ideas be cast aside as soon as they’re voiced?
When searching for new, innovative solutions, it is important to give even ideas that resonate as undeniably “bad” a chance to be considered, debated and developed. As Osborn put it, we should suspend judgment. He did not say to eliminate judgment, just to suspend it. This would imply that we will eventually evaluate and judge whether some ideas are unacceptable, impractical or simply off-target. But we must suspend that judgment until an idea has had a chance to “percolate.”
Why "Bad" Ideas Should Be Allowed to Survive...for Awhile
First, and perhaps most obvious, rampant criticism in a brainstorm is offensive to many. When people’s ideas are quickly and consistently shot down, they become intimidated and are reluctant to share—not an ideal situation in a group idea generation session. It takes courage to put forth an idea that is imaginative or radical sounding. Negativity and judgment create an unsafe atmosphere for sharing such ideas.
Next, as a rule of thumb, the idea generation phase of a brainstorm should be spontaneous and free-flowing, where ideas are plentiful, offered spontaneously and without hesitation. The moment an idea is shot down, the free-wheeling momentum will grind to a halt. It can take a group significant time to get back into flow, if they are able to at all. So even if an idea has no value, the “cost” of killing it is too great, when considering the negative impact on the session’s productivity.
Finally, and most important, you never know when a so-called “bad idea” will contain the seeds of greatness within it.
We’ve seen it countless times in our work. A “bad,” even absurd idea is offered up, and within minutes it has transformed into a brilliant example of innovative thinking.
In fact, like many brainstorming experts, we make use of some very effective idea generation techniques that actually invite participants to come up with the worst, most ridiculous, even distasteful ideas imaginable—and then to turn around or transform those ideas into great ones. (Techniques like “180-Degree Thinking” or “Counter-Intuitive Thinking” take a similar approach.)
To get back to our somewhat extreme, “what if we all jumped out of the window” example…clearly this is a bad sounding idea. But from such an idea, one might develop an innovative emergency personal parachute product for individuals working in tall buildings. Or conceive an improved process for evacuation from high floors during a fire. A new “team hang gliding” extreme sports event. A breakthrough advertising concept where a group of people are able to fly after consuming a new beverage. You name it! Any of these, and an infinite number of other possibilities, could be born from the “bad idea” that everyone in the room should jump out of a window.
That is, unless the idea is shot down before the potentially great idea within it has a chance to blossom. And that is the point: to suspend judgment until an idea has had a fair chance to show all it’s got.
The Right Time to Kill an Idea
So when is it appropriate and even productive to reject an idea?
One of the most important concepts to understand about successful group idea generation is that there is a time to generate ideas, and a time to judge and select. These are two very different and distinct processes that require different thinking skills. During idea generation, thinking must remain free, spontaneous and free of any negativity or judgment. This is the optimal condition for generating the greatest breadth and depth of fresh ideas possible.
Later, once the idea generation process has been completed, it is then time to switch to the process of evaluating and selecting ideas, and subject the best ones to critique. It is during this phase in the session (or in a subsequent session) that ideas should be judged worthy or unworthy, practical or implausible, etc.
By keeping these two processes separate, you optimize your effectiveness at both.
Most of us enter a brainstorm with the goal of generating fresh, innovative, game-changing ideas. However if judgment and criticism are part of the ideation process, it is highly unlikely that goal will be achievable.
Suspend judgment. Even if you know, without a doubt, that an idea is bad—really bad, even horrible—let it live, just for awhile. You just might find a game-changer hidden inside!
Doesn’t that sound like a good idea?