All too often, those brainstorming or "ideation" sessions often blend into a blur of sameness, twists, and even less as participants struggle to top one another with a twist or a turn that's more often a feature or a function than it is a big, bold, disruptive idea. Volumes have been written on "ideation" and "brainstorming," but few of the many attempts I've made at reinvigorating a flailing creative session work as well as the one you'd least suspect!
I wish it were my own idea, but I actually stole it from a top ideation pro, Bryan Mattimore, who's written several books on the ideation and corporate creativity. Bryan makes mincemeat of the old saw, "there's no such thing as a bad idea," and in fact uses bad ideas--no, the dumbest, worst possible ideas--to reinvigorate a flagging session. He calls it "going from bad to worst," and has seen it work many times.
Sales are terrible, so an ideation session is convened. What are the worst possible ideas for improving sales, you might ask?
· Give the product away: might lead to discussions of alternative ways of pricing like SAAS, free trial, metered use, or even perhaps(toughest of all) an ad-supported software tool.
· Stop selling: an old trick of fabricating a controlled shortage, enhanced when people start asking "how do I buy..."
· Get rid of the sales team and automate: courageous, but it's worked for lots of SMB software companies and more than a few others(think apps and games, for example)
The "worst idea" process is best started as a surprise, right after the coffee break following the too-often humdrum creative session. Announce the new rules by asking participants to collectively create a list of bad ideas. Really terrible ideas. Awful ideas. Stupid ideas. Illegal ideas. Gross ideas. Then, when everyone's busy wondering if you're about to lose your job over this dumb, time-wasting stunt, ask participants to help you turn these worst ideas into good ideas. How? Either think of the worst idea's opposite, or dig deeper to see if--as bad as the idea is--there's something of interest or value in the bad idea that actually inspires a good one.
My favorite experience using this technique centered on how much to charge for a CRM conference some years ago. When the suggestion to "make it free" got everyone guffawing, we explored it further. Voila--sell corporate sponsors and give them seats to give away to customers and prospects.
Bryan opened a session for bankers by saying "I'd like you to come up not with good ideas for marketing your bank and its ﬁnancial products, but with the worst ideas you can think of. These ideas could be stupid, crazy, or even illegal. Have fun! Push yourself to come with really bad ideas." After a very long, intimidating pause, one bold soul suggested "well, we could close the bank at noon instead of 3:00" Everyone laughed. Banker humor. Followed by, "We could double the ATM fees!" More laughter.
Bad ideas started flowing. "Here's a really bad idea," said one banker. "We could round down everyone's deposits to the nearest dollar. Most people probably wouldn't notice." Said another,
"let's make mistakes in their favor, give everyone extra money every time they make a transaction. Now that's a bad idea!" More laughter," but if you've ever seen the Bank of America "keep the change" savings program, perhaps it began in this session.
The worst idea technique can re-energize an oft-deadly innovation session in moments, causing great energy and great ideas to ﬂow. It's also about as much fun as you can have at a business meeting, especially at a bank! Mattimore and his company, www.growth-engine.com, lead scores of innovation sessions each year, and he claims that the "worst idea" technique out-delivers dozens of his more, er, traditional exercises in both quality and quantity of ideas(assuming, of course, those dogs are turned into unicorns once someone surfaces a malleable terrible idea).
I pushed Bryan to understand why the worst idea technique works so well. For one, probably more than any other technique, it takes the creative pressure off. It allows people to relax, open up their brains a bit, and have fun. Reluctant, oft-silent participants may not be sure they can come up with a good idea, but certainly know that they can come up with a bad one.