When Brainstorming, Start with the Bad Ideas


 At one time or another we’ve all been invited to attend a brainstorming session, where the leader stands up in front of a whiteboard, pen in hand, and says something like, “Innovation is critical. We need to come up with some good ideas to stay innovative.  So who wants to start?”

As any survivor of one of these sessions will tell you, what transpires over the next few hours is often generously referred to as “brainstorming,” while others might call it a waste of time.  The reason these creativity sessions often fail is because they expect participants to spontaneously generate good ideas when in fact they should be asking for bad ideas.  Let me explain.

 My colleague A. J. Chopra has both observed and facilitated thousands of brainstorming sessions, and he has witnessed the leadership skills that foster innovation.  One such skill is what Chopra calls “Growing Ideas.”   In his book “Managing the People-Side of Innovation, ” Chopra posits the following question: what is a good idea and where does it come from?  His answer is intriguing and it starts from this premise:

Good ideas are the end-product of a process that begins with ideas that are flawed, sometimes extremely so. 

Let that pervious sentence really sink in.  Go ahead, read it again.  Then, think back to all of the crazy, outrageous, extremely flawed ideas that you, or even the people who work for you, have dared to share with others.  Most likely these ideas where quickly dismissed because they shared a common trait; they were impractical!

If there is one thing we humans are good at, it is recognizing impractical ideas and squashing them like grapes.  We are like heat seeking missiles, finding impracticality in the ideas of others, especially when the come from outside of our organization or profession.

But wait, Chopra tells us that impractical ideas are exactly what we are looking for when “brainstorming.”  You see, there are three essential qualities to a good idea:

  1. Edge – the idea represents a new approach or solution that offers an advantage over the current state.
  2. Appeal – people must feel positive about the idea and be attracted to it in some way.
  3. Practical – the idea must live within the realm of possibility.

The problem is that good ideas rarely just pop into your head fully formed and sharing all three traits above.  After all, if an idea has edge, appeal and is practical, most likely someone has thought of it already.  In brainstorming you need to go beyond what has already been thought of or implemented.

The only way to get to a good idea is to grow the idea over time.  It starts with the raw material, and the best material is an idea that has edge, appeal and is impractical.  The idea represents an advantage over the current state; people are naturally attracted to it, now you just need to convert it from an impractical idea to a practical idea.

Good leaders do this by asking questions of their team.  For example, you might say, “we all know X is an impractical idea, but let’s talk about what we like about X.  If we were able to do X, how would that help us?”  This question immediately transforms people into a future state where impractical idea X is already a reality.  Now people are free to explore the many benefits of X.  And if X is a compelling idea, there will be no shortage of benefits.

After the benefits are listed, you turn to address the flaws.  Ask your team to identify the major flaws.  Get them out on the table.  The idea is to find the most important flaw, which is sometimes, but not always the biggest flaw.

Now you’re ready to start the transformation process.  Chopra identifies two different variations on the transformation process (if you want to become an expert at this, get the book).  But the basic ideas is to pose this question; “how can we realize the benefits of impractical idea X while avoiding or eliminating major flaw Y.”  In other words, how do we retain the plusses from the idea in a more practical way?

By exploring this question with persistence, creativity and humor, you will lead your team to transform a “bad” idea into a great one.


  • Sean–I love this idea and really enjoyed practicing it a year or so back at your NYC client conference. I agree that many times, the best solutions come out of the process of thinking about what “our best case” looks like. Then, figuring out how we can get their within the context of our organization (costs/legalities/etc). I also find it gives those employees who are frustrated in wanting a specific solution a chance to vent (within reason)–and out of those vents could come a very realy and viable solution. At the very least we have given them a forum for being heard.

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