The value of a bad idea

Imagine that a car manufacturer has created a car that will drive itself during most routine driving situations; the driver only needs to control the car during unusual circumstances. They have asked you to design a dashboard that will allow the driver to control the car when necessary, but they have stipulated that there is to be no steering wheel… as they want to convey that this car is different.

This was one of several design problems that we presented to recent participants of a Simple Prototyping Lunch & Learn event held at our office on July 14th. The goal of the session was to encourage participants to rethink their idea of a “prototype”. Too often prototypes are viewed as a nearly finished mock-up, which closely resembles the finished product; perhaps all of the bells and whistles aren’t there yet, but the prototype clearly shows the product form and often has the major interaction points built in as well. Of course, the problem with these types of prototypes is that they are developed so far along in the design process that when you find an issue, it’s too late to fix it.

Our goal was to illustrate the value of using minimal realism at every step within the design process, especially early on. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It allows a team to visually communicate ideas as early as possible in the process. From the take-away comments that we collected at the end of the session, our participants seemed to “get it”.

But one of our participants had another take-away that I found to be a rather interesting insight, which is what I want to talk about in the rest of this post. He indicated that he had “learned the value of a bad idea”. At face-value it seems like such an obvious, and yet contradictory, sort of statement. What can be good about a bad idea?

Brainstorming is all about “potential” … the potential of the ideas that are presented and the potential of the project / product that the brainstorming is centered around. In that context, the value of a bad idea has very little to do with the idea itself — the value is in the potential that it creates in the brainstorming session. The bad idea may spark better ideas, and may even spark ideas that make the initial bad idea not only doable, but desirable — though perhaps in another form, and bad ideas are wonderful catalysts for discussion. But I think the most valuable thing about a bad idea is its ability to engage members of a team who might otherwise sit on the side lines for fear of being ridiculed for a bad idea.

Those of us who have moderated brainstorming sessions, or even focus groups, have seen it … these are the people who sit quietly, reluctant to lend their voices. They fail to engage and their potential is lost. A bad idea has the ability to draw out these wallflowers, but its ability to do so is affected by how the team reacts to the bad idea. Does the team react with scorn and derision? Does the team stop for a moment to ponder the idea? Do they stop for a moment to laugh – in an inclusive sort of way?

How the team reacts will determine whether these wallflowers join the discussion, perhaps lending valuable insight, or whether they shrink back in on themselves, with any potential insight lost. As the moderator of such a session, I believe that it is my responsibility to lead the reaction to these ideas and to ensure that the value of the bad idea is realized in the session.

That’s not to say that all bad ideas should be embraced. Those that are thrown out with malice or spite require a different reaction, but fortunately, I’ve rarely come across these in the sessions that I have moderated.

But bad ideas proposed with all sincerity should be welcomed. In fact, when I moderate future sessions, I think I’ll be the first one to voice a spectacularly bad idea.

Carolynn Johnson