"That's so stupid! I wish I had thought of it!"

Human Powered HelicopterBack in another life (not so long ago), I was a "Solutions Architect". Now, that's a fancy way of saying problem solver. Most of my clients were, in fact, quite sane, thoughtful and careful, but occasionally they... well... they weren't. Then it went like this:

  1. The clients would come up with an idea, often hare-brained or completely insane, which they were convinced would make tonnes of money, or led to superhuman efficiency, or totally revolutionise how everybody on Earth did something.
  2. I'd be called in to hear to the idea, on the precept that I could tell them how it could be done (well, in theory).
  3. While listening, I often realised that there was very little chance of pulling it off. (And of course, by association, my reputation as an advisor would be jeopardised.)
  4. However, somewhere deep down in the bizarre or ill-researched or badly-timed idea, there was often a seed. I soon learned that my success would depend heavily upon my ability to cultivate that....

Seeing this happen again and again, I soon came up with a brainstorming technique that was based on taking the worst ideas. Oddly enough, it was one of the most effective techniques I've ever facilitated.

The basic premise is this: either by yourself or with your team, generate your list of ideas for a particular project. Yes, there may be some good ones there, but put them to one side and forget about them for now. At this moment, take the three worst ideas. Yes, you heard me. The worst ones. The ones that have no hope in heaven or hell to achieve your desired outcome, either because of budget, time, value, demographic, global climate conditions, or anything else.

I believe that creativity is often unleashed by trying to make order out of chaos. Now, we have our chaos at this point, and it's time to dig into it and brainstorm how parts of those three stupid ideas might work. By taking something completely unexpected and forcing yourself to approach the project outcome from a different direction, you might find a series of lightbulbs coming on in quick succession. I can't claim that this trick works every time, but when it does, it can really drop-kick the collective imagination into overdrive. (If nothing else, it puts a different perspective on the good ideas you may have had earlier.)

As an example, I remember leading a group session a few years ago for an organisation that wanted to take advantage of the (late) dot-com gold rush and start an online "mall" that would --they figured-- attract a lot of people to jump on board with the expectation of mutually boosting each others' sales, just like a real mall does. This was an idea I had already heard three times that year, and I knew that it just wasn't going to work unless there was a very strong and costly common architecture cross-selling products, one that lay outside of the hands of the individual sellers. (After all, I reckoned, why would a business put any effort into selling someone else's products for free?)

So five of us locked ourselves in a room and did a round-robin brainstorming session with cards (the same technique I mentioned last week), and once the results were up on the wall, we took the three worst ideas. They went something like this:

  • Pay retailers to come set up in the "mall".
  • Provide a physical location for people to come look at merchandise.
  • Advertise, advertise, advertise online (this was highly speculative and very costly at the time).

Eight hours and two pizzas and five donairs and 18 Cokes later, stimulated by the ideas above (and a lot of caffeine), this is what we came up with: they would abandon their original idea of an online mall and instead set up inside a mall, a real physical location in a small town that was a regional service hub. They advertised their services in the regional print and radio media, and they paid the expenses of local distributors and wholesalers for various products to come see them. What was their new business model? People would bring them their unwanted items, spectacular garage sale finds, and wholesale lots of difficult-to-sell merchandise, and then the team would appraise them, put up the items on eBay, and take a 35% commision for selling and shipping the items! Last I heard, they were doing such a brisk business (even after the dot-com bust) that they were planning to set up new locations in larger cities.

Three stupid ideas can lead to a highly effective one. The next time someone gives you a silly idea, don't sell it short: instead, try to find a little inspiration in it.

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Good going, those things are everywhere here.

Yeah, the eBay stores are all over the place here in metro Detroit. Yes, there is a fine line between clever and stupid. It's a motto I live by.

Somehow i think you are not

Somehow i think you are not alone in that! ;^)