I’m a big fan of the Dilbert comic strip and, having worked in a large government department for most of my career, I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve felt like I’m living out a real life Dilbert cartoon! Last week I listened to James Altucher’s podcast interview with author, cartoonist and Dilbert creator, Scott Adams. One of the things they discussed was coming up with ideas and the importance of bad ideas…
SCOTT ADAMS: “So one of the things that I’m pretty serious about is that bad ideas have value. In other words, if I give you ten bad ideas, those probably didn’t have any value, but if it made you think of one that was good it’s like, “Oh, those ten ideas were bad, but that makes me think of this idea.”
So the way you get to good ideas is through bad ideas…
There’s almost never a time when somebody just sits there in a blank room and says, “Ah, good idea!” You know, you don’t go from here to there; you go through the bad ones first. So the more bad ideas the better as long as they’re well-explained…”
JAMES ALTUCHER: “You know, and also the thing about let’s say a list of bad ideas is it could be what I call idea sex. Two bad ideas put together, it actually could be the case that negative one plus negative one equals three.
The problem with focusing on good ideas
We put so much pressure on ourselves and others to only come up with ‘good’ ideas. This has three main problems.
- It weakens our ‘ideas muscle’. Creativity and creative confidence is improved and strengthened through regular practice. The important thing for developing your idea muscle is the quantity of ideas that you come up with and the frequency with which you do this, not the quality of ideas that you generate. As you strengthen your idea muscle you’ll notice that the quality of ideas and efficiency with which you generate them improve.
- You miss the opportunity to springboard off a bad idea. As James and Scott discussed in the podcast, bad ideas (or elements of bad ideas) are often ingredients in the development of a good idea.
- It removes the fun. The pressure to come up with a good idea or right solution takes the fun out of idea generation. The freedom and flexibility to be wrong and a little crazy makes brainstorming much more enjoyable.
Start embracing bad ideas
So, if bad ideas are an important precursor to good ideas, how can you get better at and more comfortable with coming up with them?
- Focus on quantity rather than quality. One of James Altucher’s daily practices is to write a list of 10 ideas. The intention isn’t to come up with good ideas or to execute any of the ideas, but rather to just exercise the idea muscle. Usually 3 or 4 ideas on a given topic/challenge are reasonably easy to come up with, but by 7 or 8 you’re really feeling that idea muscle start to sweat! In order to get to that 10 idea ‘goal’ you’re inevitably going to have some bad ideas on the list. And that’s okay, and actually encouraged.
- In group brainstorming, try the ‘yes, and’ improv technique. Rather than rolling your eyes, shutting down ideas from colleagues (or your spouse, partner, children or friends), or focusing on why an idea won’t work, instead accept the idea that’s been presented and challenge yourself to build on it to create a new idea.
- Deliberately try to generate bad or wrong ideas. One of my favourite idea generation techniques is the reverse brainstorm. For example, say you were trying to come up with ideas for products or services to help people to sleep better at night. Instead of holding a traditional brainstorm, you instead flip the brainstorm challenge question so it becomes ‘how might we help people to sleep worse at night?’. By reversing the question and aiming for the ‘wrong’ answers I find it frees up people’s thinking. They immediately start to think more broadly and get a bit silly with their ideas (which makes it lots of fun). Often times you can then flip the ‘solutions’ you come up with, which will give you insights and ideas about solving your original challenge.
This post was first featured in the October 2014 Sticky Note monthly newsletter. If you’d like to receive posts like this via monthly email (as well as other interesting design/creativity related news and links) you can sign up here.
Image Credit: Andrés Nieto Porras via Flickr
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