Why You Want To Generate Bad Ideas

"You guys, remember, in here there are no bad ideas!" - the declaration that announces the beginning of Every. Single. Brainstorm. Usually these words are spoken in a stifling conference room, sometimes there are snacks; sometimes there are not. Participants will lethargically and robotically nod their heads in agreement with this statement while their internal monologue cautions, "of course there are bad ideas, and I have them." Of course, the participants -- not the moderator -- are right. There are plenty of bad ideas out there. But here's the thing: the bad ideas might just get you further than the good ones.

There are a few reasons for this. But, chief among them is that in the communication industry, we're selling ideas. The more innovative and remarkable the idea, the more successful we are in capturing consumers, attention, revenue, etc. In short, bad ideas help us achieve something that is less safe and more interesting. Why?

First and foremost, sharing bad ideas empowers people to share good ideas. When you see your colleagues, clients, or boss throwing out terrible ideas it makes it ok for you to do the same. You're then less likely to have your thinking constricted by rules, budgets, or convention. At M Booth we encourage this type of thinking by tapping into people's competitive spirit. So, we might say, "the person who comes up with the most ideas in next ten minutes will win XYZ" so that people focus on quantity rather than quality and let their mind run wild.

So that's great. But what do you do with 100 bad ideas you might ask? Well, Jon Bell's "McDonald's Theory" - a social post he wrote which went viral last month - says that bad ideas open the gates for good ones. The theory gets its name because Bell always suggests McDonald's when his co-workers ask where to go to lunch. He writes,

It's as if we've broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative ... people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

His theory is spot on, in fact it is easier for us to generate ideas when we have an anchor point for our brain to respond to. Much like in improvisational exercises, our brain is more creative when we can say "yes ... and" (or the more likely, "no, but ...") to bad ideas that have been put forth. Put this in the context of your own brainstorming. Sure, you may not agree that a consumer-facing event will help your brand achieve its goals. But, this idea provides you a framework for developing a suggestion that might.

So certainly encourage bad ideas in your next brainstorm, but I also caution you to pay attention to the "bad" ideas at the end of the exercise. Yes -- some ideas actually are bad (i.e. hiring Lindsay Lohan as your spokesperson is probably not a good idea). But some ideas are just deemed bad because they seem too expensive, difficult, esoteric or weird -- but they're actually amazing! For instance, when Tokyo wanted to reduce street crime their solution was to install blue mood lighting on its city streets. That sounds like an epically terrible idea, right? Can you even imagine presenting that idea to a client or CEO? Probably not. But, it was actually very, very successful.

How can you avoid throwing out bad ideas that might turn out to be amazing? Well, the next time you're sitting in front of pages and pages of brainstorm notes, circle the ideas that you like the best first. Then circle the ideas that generated the most laughs, the most conversation, and the ideas that everybody loved but were quickly dismissed with a logistical concern. Then, spend five minutes troubleshooting each of those ideas to see if you can make them work. Once you're finished, if the idea still makes you smile and feel a little bit uncomfortable -- well then you're probably on the right track.