We’ve all been there; a brainstorming session, presentation, meeting or other group event when somebody blurts out what is clearly the worst idea in the world. But bad ideas can be good. Harvey Briggs explores why.

You know what I’m talking about…

  • The idea that’s been done a thousand times.
  • The idea that’s physically impossible to execute.
  • The idea that only one person in the world might actually pay money for.
  • The idea that’s completely off strategy.
  • The idea that meets no apparent consumer need.

Before you make a negative comment, killing the idea and stifling its author’s future participation, try this…

Embrace that awful idea

Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” This means in every brainstorming session you’re going to have an overwhelming number of ideas that aren’t so good.

Bad ideas are a necessary part of the process. In fact, early on in my career I found that one of the fallacies of brainstorming and idea generation is that “there are no bad ideas.” There are. In 25 years I’ve seen more than my fair share of them.

A germ repelling body suit for elementary school kids? Awful.

A robot that paints walls for under $30? Impossible.

Brussels Sprout ice cream? Yuck.

I think you’ll agree that these are bad ideas. And at most brainstorming sessions, they’d be dutifully recorded and posted on the wall never to be thought of again because everyone knows they’re bad. If that had been the case when those ideas came up a few good ideas may never have surfaced.

Find the good in the bad

One exercise I do regularly is to take bad ideas, pick them apart and try to uncover if there is any good in them. In the case of Brussels Sprout ice cream, it went something like this.

What could possibly be good about Brussels sprout ice cream?

  • It’s different.
  • It’s a grown up flavor.
  • Brussels sprouts are fresh.
  • They’re grown in different regions around the country.
  • You can find them in farmers markets.
  • You rarely have to worry about kids eating your share.

So using these as guidelines we were able to come up with a line of “Farmer’s Market” ice creams featuring more grown-up (and palatable) flavors. The line included flavors like Sweet Corn & Butter, MacIntosh Apple & Cinnamon, and even Tomato & Basil. Definitely adult. Definitely out of the ordinary. Low volume, high margin product that could add gourmet credentials to the master brand.

We might never have gotten there had we glossed over a seemingly throwaway idea.

Bad ideas are easy

If you feel your brainstorming session bogging down, try this exercise.

Revisit your problem statement and ask the group for the worst ideas they can think of to solve the problem. Have them just blurt them out. Encourage participation. Recognize each idea for its awfulness and listen for the laughter.

After you’ve generated a long list of bad ideas ask a member of the group to pick one. Then go through the same process as I did above. Have the team break the bad idea down by asking what’s good about it. Even the worst idea will have some redeeming value. Then once you’ve finished with that list, have the group come up with ideas that meet the criteria you’ve just outlined.

Make it fast paced, exciting and fun. Don’t worry about the details; you can fill those in later. Move quickly from one bad idea to the next and soon you’ll have pages of ideas that are less bad and maybe even one or two that are good.

Bad can be good

The net effect of this exercise is that people become more comfortable contributing ideas both good and bad. They know that their ideas won’t be ridiculed and that even ideas that may seem to be the worst in the world can lead to something good.

And that’s what good brainstorming is all about.

About the author:

Harvey has spent over 25 years creating both award-winning communications and new products for such brands as Chevrolet, Pepsi, Kraft, Kimberly Clark, Mercury Marine and many others. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he prepared for this modern world by studying Latin. Harvey served on the Board of Directors of the Product Development and Management Association and has spoken on the subjects of branding, advertising creativity, and innovation at conferences across the country. Harvey is the founder and Director of Disruption of OBX Thinking, a product innovation and marketing firm in the US.