When it comes to making good decisions, bad options can help

The wrong choices can sometimes be helpful in getting to the right ones.
The wrong choices can sometimes be helpful in getting to the right ones.
Image: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
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Think of the worst idea ever for a new business venture, one that is guaranteed to fail. Or try to imagine a truly terrible, good-for-nobody new government policy. Or even, as a class of grade school kids I know recently did, the worst idea for a birthday party. (For the record, some of those terrible party ideas included holding the event in a sewer, a joint birthday party/funeral, and, worst of all, a party with no cake.)

My guess is that this exercise, which I often run with my students and clients, was easier for you than it would have been had I asked you to come up with a great idea instead.

Many of us are in search of the elusive good idea – that brilliant stroke of insight that can create value, kick-start a career, and even change the world. The thing is, good ideas can be awfully hard to come by. They are difficult to produce on demand and challenging to recognize on sight. Bad ideas, by contrast, seem to be in endless supply.

Using this bad-ideas exercise and others like it, I teach that instead of only obsessing about good ideas, we can also learn to make bad ideas an essential part of the creative process.

A bad idea can lower the bar

Normally, we think of lowering the bar as a bad thing. In the case of generating new ideas, it is actually essential. Every person is creative. But many of us censor ourselves, holding off on sharing ideas until we are completely sure our idea is worthwhile. We want to be sure the idea clears the bar of worthiness for discussion. Who wants to be the person who suggests a totally unworkable, completely unrealistic bad idea in a meeting? All of us should, because it turns out that once a truly bad idea is on the table, it frees up the team to share their own ideas, even the ones that seem a little silly at first.

A bad idea can be a jumping off point

A few bad ideas can be the key to producing an outpouring of lots of ideas. A truly effective brainstorming session involves building on the ideas of others and using the raw materials others have provided to push forward. The more ideas on the table, the more likely we are to make progress toward a good idea. After all, you never know what that bad idea might inspire in someone else. As Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling said, “the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

A bad idea may have some good in it

Wild, silly and even bad ideas can contain within them the seed of something great. To illustrate this point in my classes, I often show an image of square watermelons. This is, of course, a rather ridiculous idea. Watermelons are watermelon-shaped. It is part of what makes them watermelons. But, oval watermelons are hard to ship, hard to store and definitely hard to cut. A square watermelon is actually a pretty great idea – and can be produced by growing the melon in a box. What at first seems like a bad idea has within it the promise of something good.  But we can’t assess that unless the bad idea is shared in the first place.

We need to reframe bad ideas. They are valuable and even essential. This, ultimately, is the point of the exercise at the beginning of this article. We begin by brainstorming bad ideas—for your company or project, department or city—and then take one of those bad ideas and explore how it might, in actuality, be a truly good idea. Maybe that funeral/birthday would save a lot of money, teach everyone something about the circle of life, and inspire attendees to celebrate small moments of joy where they find them.

Here’s how Lauren, a 12-year-old who my colleagues interviewed after training her teacher in this approach, explains it: “In the past, I would not raise my hand when a teacher asked a question because I was afraid of getting it wrong. I’m more confident because we were taught that nothing is necessarily a really bad idea.” The confidence that enables creativity comes from learning to love those bad ideas in the first place.

Jennifer Riel is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School Management, University of Toronto and co-author, with Roger Martin, of Creating Great Choices: A leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking.