The road to the great idea starts with a terrible idea

There are plenty of bad ideas out there. But the bad ideas will get you further than the good ones.

Every brainstorm you will ever sit in starts with somebody overenthusiastically announcing, “You guys, remember, in here there are no bad ideas!”

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 will 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, 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 and charging brainstormers to come up with the most ideas or ten of the worst ideas they can possibly imagine.

So that's great. But what do you do with 100 bad ideas for a social media campaign, you might ask? Well, Jon Bell's “McDonald's Theory” – a social post he wrote that went viral last month – postulates 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 shared. Put this in the context of your own brainstorming. Sure, you may not agree that a sampling effort 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 Charlie Sheen 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 Bogota, Columbia, wanted to improve a dire traffic situation they decided to hire mimes to follow jaywalkers and mock the way they walked. That sounds like an especially terrible idea, right? Can you imagine ever presenting that to a client or CEO? Probably not. But, it was actually incredibly successful.

How can you avoid this? 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 a little bit uncomfortable, then you're in outstanding shape.

Andrew Rossi is VP and creative director at M Booth.

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