Contrary to popular wisdom, bad ideas really do exist in brainstorming, and you definitely want to have them

The mantra that “there is no such thing as a bad idea” can itself be a bad idea if mis-applied. As someone who has had their share of “bad” ideas, I have no doubt that they definitely do exist. How to deal with them in the context of a brainstorming session is a different story.

I have found that with the right group and the right ground rules, it can be very useful to allow criticism of ideas after there has been an open sharing of different concepts. Ideas are cheap and many of them aren’t brilliant in the form in which they are first proposed. Often the true innovation comes from examining what makes a bad idea bad, and then figuring out if there is a way to develop upon it so that it becomes feasible and good. Those are the really valuable ideas.

A couple of people have commented correctly that the facilitator needs to stay away from biasing the results by passing judgment. This is true and it can become dangerous for the facilitator to start steering the discussion. However, I have found that doing an unbiased critique of ALL of the ideas that have been put on the table, can unearth potential fatal flaws. The solutions to these possible fatal flaws are often the actual gems that come out of the brainstorming session, not the ideas as they were first presented.

I prefer to stray away from the mantra that “all ideas are good ideas” because we all know that isn’t really true, and it can sound silly to many of the participants. Instead, it can be more useful to reinforce that even “bad” ideas are welcome and are useful to help us get to a good idea.

It can even be interesting to specifically solicit bad ideas from the group, to see if there are any directions that are thought to be crazy, but might have merit if they can be refined or modified by others in the group. Suspending all judgment can be good for the initial flood of ideas, but a little judgment applied later in the session can do wonders for eliciting some really innovative ideas that make the results of the brainstorming far more actionable and useful.

Eric Bartsch
Chanute Consulting Group