Why Bad Ideas Can Be So Great

A brainstorming technique to use what’s terrible to uncover unexpected good ideas.

Diana Lillicrap 5.30.2019

If you’ve been in a brainstorming session, you’ve probably heard that there are no bad ideas. Well this technique challenges that notion and encourages you to come up with what others might see as terrible ideas to uncover some new, really good ideas.

Allow space for negative thinking

It may seem counterintuitive, but believe it or not, sometimes encouraging a little negativity in your brainstorming process can propel you into new positive outcomes. Plus, it can be freeing and fun to purposely try to come up with the worst of the worst. Here’s how it works.

Get granular with your problem

As with most problem-solving and creative idea generation you need to start by clearly identifying the problem or stating the outcome you are trying to achieve. Try to be very specific and focused on one part of your bigger goal. For example, let’s say your problem is that you want to improve the customer experience in your retail store. Break it down even further, such as trying to improve the checkout experience, the experience in the parking lot, or the experience of returning an item.

Let the bad ideas flow

Now that you have your problem, it’s time to get creative and uncover what would be the worst way to solve your problem. Give everyone on the team 8 index cards and a sharpie. Instruct them to come up with 8 terrible ways to solve your problem as quickly as they can using the cards and the sharpie to sketch out what each terrible idea looks like. Encourage people to be as ridiculous as they can imagine. For example, maybe you force customers to shop in the dark. Maybe you start the store on fire—a real fire sale. Or maybe your parking lot is always closed or under construction. The point is to come up with as many terrible ideas as you can in a short amount of time. Set a timer for 2 minutes and get to work. By keeping the tools basic and the time limited, it will force people to keep their ideas simple and focused on a main point.

At the end of the 2 minutes, have each person explain their cards to the group. Keep track of the themes that start to emerge.

Reverse your thinking

Once you’ve finished going through all the bad ideas, ask everyone to pick one of their favorite terrible ideas. Using that idea, hand out 4 more cards and ask each person to now show how that bad idea could be turned into a fresh, new positive idea. Set another timer and start sketching.

Find new answers

When you’re finished sketching, ask everyone to share again and capture the creative plans that have emerged. When you’re through, you will have dozens of inventive and fresh ideas, some of which will spark momentum or even fit perfectly in solving your initial intention with a much more creative approach.

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