Of course there are bad ideas. But criticizing ideas during brainstorming sessions can stifle innovation, say the authors of SmartStorming.
“There’s no such thing as a bad idea!” This is often cited as a “rule” of brainstorming, long embraced and championed by experts. But is it true? After all, you often hear those words when they’re being used to justify a lame suggestion that’s just been made by a colleague. In reality, aren’t there at least a few bad ideas?
In their corporate training sessions, Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer—coauthors of SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas always introduce the “no bad idea” notion. Often a heated debate ensues.
According to Rigie and Harmeyer, the “no bad idea” mantra is not a new one. Alex Osborn, considered by many to be the father of brainstorming, believed that in order to be successful, participants must “suspend judgment.” Like most brainstorm leaders, Osborn understood the perils of allowing people to start criticizing ideas in the midst of a session. Today most group idea generation methodologies maintain the tradition.
“Most brainstorming gurus agree that when searching for new, innovative solutions, it’s important to give even ideas that resonate as undeniably ‘bad’ a chance to be considered, debated, and developed,” says Rigie. “As Osborn put it, we should suspend judgment. He didn’t say to eliminate judgment, only to suspend it. This would imply that we will eventually evaluate and judge whether some ideas are unacceptable, impractical, or simply off target. But we must suspend that judgment until an idea has had a chance to percolate.”
Here are a few tips from Harmeyer and Rigie on how to manage ideas and encourage innovation during brainstorming sessions:
Criticism kills innovation. Rampant criticism in a brainstorming session is offensive to many. When people’s ideas are quickly and consistently shot down, they become intimidated and are reluctant to share—not an ideal situation in a group idea generation session.
“It takes courage to put forth an idea that is imaginative or radical sounding,” says Harmeyer. “Negativity and judgment create an unsafe atmosphere for sharing such ideas.”
In the beginning, go for quantity, not quality. The idea generation phase of a brainstorm should be free flowing, where ideas are plentiful, offered spontaneously and without hesitation.
“The moment an idea is shot down, the momentum will grind to a halt,” explains Rigie. “It can take a group significant time to get back into flow, if they are able to at all. So even if an idea has no value, the ‘cost’ of killing it is too great, when considering the negative impact on the session’s productivity.”
Bad ideas can lead to big ideas. You never know when a so-called “bad idea” will contain the seeds of greatness within it.
“We’ve seen it countless times in our work,” says Harmeyer. “A ‘bad,’ even absurd, idea is offered up, and within minutes it has transformed into a brilliant example of innovative thinking. In fact, like many brainstorming experts, we make use of some very effective idea generation techniques that actually invite participants to come up with the worst, most ridiculous, even distasteful ideas imaginable—and then to turn around or transform those ideas into great ones.”
When the time is right, you can kill it with consideration. When is it appropriate and even productive to reject an idea? “One of the most important concepts to understand about successful group idea generation is that there is a time to generate ideas and a time to judge and select ideas,” says Rigie. “These are two very different and distinct processes that require different thinking skills. During idea generation, thinking must remain spontaneous and free of any negativity or judgment. This is the optimal condition for generating the greatest breadth and depth of fresh ideas possible.”
Once the idea generation process has been completed, it is then time to switch to the process of evaluating and selecting ideas, and subject the best ones to critique, he adds. It is during this phase in the session (or in a subsequent session) that ideas should be judged worthy or unworthy. By keeping these two processes separate, you optimize your effectiveness at both.
About the authors and SmartStorming: Mitchell Rigie is a creative professional with expertise spanning the fields of art, design, communications, strategic marketing and human development. As a vice president and award-winning creative supervisor for advertising agencies—including Saatchi & Saatchi and Foote, Cone & Belding—and as a consultant for Grey Worldwide, he has managed creative teams in the development of campaigns for Fortune 500 clients, including Johnson & Johnson, American Express, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and General Electric.
Keith Harmeyer’s professional background includes over 25 years in advertising and strategic marketing, sales and business coaching, and advanced presentation and communication skills training. As a marketing and creative executive at agencies in the Omnicom and Publicis networks, as well as founder and principal of his own marketing communications firm, he created successful brand-marketing programs and business presentations for many of the world’s best known and most successful companies, such as American Express, JPMorgan Chase, Sony, Time Warner, ABC, Disney, McDonald’s, Foot Locker and many others.
Rigie and Harmeyer created the SmartStorming methodology after experiencing thousands of brainstorming sessions and witnessing firsthand how frustrating and unproductive the process can be. The methodology is based on their 50-plus years of experience and expertise, their research on the subjects of idea generation and creative problem solving, and practical application in the areas of innovation, peak creative performance and interpersonal communication. Founders of the training and consulting practice SmartStorming LLC, the two men wrote the book SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas.