Is there such a thing as a bad idea?

By Tom Wood @Foolproofer

Whenever any group of people convenes to generate new ideas pretty much the first thing the person moderating the session will say is that “There’s no such thing as a bad idea”.

The purpose of this statement is to settle the participants and reassure them that, in the white-heat of generating ideas, none of their contributions will be seen as silly, irrelevant or downright useless. But is it true that there’s no such thing as a bad idea?

Well, of course not. I’ve heard and suggested plenty of dumb ideas in my time. There are three questions you really need to consider:

1. What impact or influence could bad ideas have on your project?

There are two broad types of bad idea:

Bad ideas – these create work (and burn up time) for the project because each idea needs to be considered, filtered and scored against some evaluation criteria. They are a drain on productivity, but not necessarily a major risk in themselves.

Bad ideas from senior or influential people – these can potentially be really dangerous because they can have the power to survive preliminary evaluation and go on into later phases of development and investment.

2. How do you decrease the number of bad ideas that are generated?

Again, two broad factors here:

Insight – does the team trying to generate ideas really have an intimate understanding of the customer and the marketplace you’re targeting? The simple answer to this is almost always ‘no’ unless you have done some primary, qualitative research. It’s one thing to know market size and metrics and have a plausible customer segmentation model (and maybe even some spiffing looking personas, so beloved of the design fraternity). But it’s very hard to develop valuable ideas unless you have a handle on the needs, behaviours, values, expectations and frustrations of your target audience.

Focus – if you don’t clearly define your objectives before you start, and agree the factors by which you will filter and prioritise all of the ideas, then you’re getting off on the wrong foot. If the focus is tight and agreed by all then it’s easy to whisk irrelevant ideas off into the long grass.

3. How do you mitigate the risk of bad ideas within your project?

Simple: share them with consumers as soon as possible. By which I mean hours, not days or weeks. Our favourite way of working is to roll rough descriptions or visualisations of ideas into consumer research on the evening of their birth – or at least within 24 hours.

This isn’t primarily to get a definitive stop/go call on individual ideas, but to talk around them and identify potential problems or barriers to adoption as well as get input from customers about how to strengthen and develop what you’ve come up with. Early development research of this type stops your project relying on the opinion and enthusiasms of people within your team. Instead you get the voice of real customers speaking into the project early enough to make sure your early steps are in the right direction.

One final note: personally I make a big distinction between Bad Ideas and Crazy Ideas. The latter are often extremely useful as a medium for developing your thinking. It’s good to give them enough time and oxygen to give you a shot at reverse engineering a crazy idea into…a Good Idea.

And that, after all, is why you got the Post-It™ notes out in the first place.

Tom Wood

I’m one of the two founders of Foolproof. Within projects I usually take a role both in planning our approach and in the generative phases of design. I’m also active in gathering client and customer needs into the design space. My particular talent is helping senior stakeholders see and understand the customer’s world in richer detail, and helping them work out how to respond.

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