On Bad Ideas

“There are no bad ideas.”

As the Idea Sandbox pointed out last weekend, this is said at the beginning of brainstorms the way one says “bless you” after a sneeze–automatically.

And then we go on and forget it was said, sheepishly avoiding speaking up about ideas that we aren’t sure of, or that stray too far from the norm.

The reason we forget this brainstorm preamble is because we all know it’s not true.

Who do we think we’re kidding? There are definitely bad ideas. Awful ones. Edison’s ghost busting machine was a bad idea. So was the jet-propelled surfboard. And disco. (Kidding. Kind of.)

Pretending there aren’t bad ideas is like giving everyone on your kids’ soccer team a trophy, even if they lost every single game, and telling them they’re winners. Come on. Even five-year-olds know they lost.

What we mean to say with that gesture is that it’s okay to lose. It’s even okay not to be good at soccer. They shouldn’t let those losses on the field make them believe that they can’t be good at anything else.

This is what we mean with the no-bad-ideas line too.

But by pretending there are no bad ideas, we make it even harder for person to speak up and take a risk. To be the person with a bad idea in a world with no bad ideas … wow, that must be one really, really bad idea. Right? People become vulnerable by speaking up in this environment–and the office is one of the last places people are willing to be vulnerable.

The trouble is, bad ideas are really, really important. They have got to get out in order for the good ideas to get out. After all, Edison bounced back from that ghost busting machine and gave us the lightbulb, moving pictures and many other incredible inventions.

The best way to have great ideas is to have many ideas. That includes bad ones.

Heck, a lot of really great ideas disguise themselves as really bad ideas. It can be incredibly hard, even for the person who comes up with it to give a zany idea a chance. The only way to really tell the difference between great ideas and awful ideas is to put them all on the table together and toss them around a bit.

So instead of pretending there are no bad ideas, we need to celebrate them. Before your next brainstorm, make it clear to your team this is a safe place. There will be no points for best ideas. There will be no judgment for bad ideas. There is sharing ideas and there is not sharing ideas. There is building ideas and there is tearing ideas down. That is all. Here, we have only the former.

Every idea is to be treated equally until imaginative consideration proves it otherwise.

Don’t just say it, live it. You may need to push to change the momentum of the group’s dynamic at first. Call on people who don’t usually speak up. Write all ideas down on paper anonymously and shuffle them all together, pick them out of a hat, and read them off one by one, giving each its moment to be mulled over. Be the brave first and share a few crazy ideas yourself. If you hear an idea you think is bad, go above and beyond to show that this idea will be heard, it will be seriously considered, it will be respected whether it is deemed relevant or not.

Just try it, and see how it changes your results.


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