But it's challenging. Brainstorming is, frankly, painful at times. There are the awkward silent ones where nobody speaks up. Then there are the sessions where only one person contributes. And while we all like to imagine brainstorming as a genuinely productive and creative team effort with loads of people getting involved, the reality just isn't always that way.
It's for that reason that I've spent a lot of time experimenting with different tactics and techniques for ideas generation. Some have been superb. Others, less so. But one of the most influential tactics I've used is the "Worst Ideas Method."
I came across this methodology in Bryan Mattimore's book, 'Idea Stormers.'
Worst Possible Ideas as an Icebreaker
Mattimore regales a tale from a session with bankers, where the group had endured hours of unproductive ideation. Mattimore threw out the request for their worst possible ideas as an icebreaker. And sure enough, as soon as the first banker had contributed a terrible idea, energy and fun was injected into the session, completely changing the course of things.
It makes sense. A lack of energy and multi-person contribution is a brainstorm killer. So if you can break the barrier and get people talking, energetic and excited, then you can easily begin steering your session positively.
The Worst Ideas May Actually Lead to the Best Ones
My team followed a simple methodology based on Mattimore's:
- We called an unplanned session at the drop of a hat. The lack of any notice for the team meant people had not overthought or over-planned anything in advance
- We started with a short verbal briefing session where we shared the objectives of the session and some vital data about budgets, timescales and similar
- We then flipped it on its head immediately and asked the group to come up with the absolute worst ideas they could verbally. We were asking for ideas that were so ludicrous they'd cost billions, ideas that were stupid, that were miles off brand or even illegal!
- One person made a note of ideas on a whiteboard while they were verbally discussed
- We also noted what it was that made the idea so terrible
- Once we had an extensive list of ideas (and an energized group of people), we asked the question of one another: "What do we have to do to make these better?"
In some cases, this final point was just about finding opposites to some of the attributes that made up the ideas. In others, it was about finding some genuine inspiration from terrible ideas. We sought out positive elements from our list of horrific ideas and put them together to create something new.
Much to my surprise, we came out of that session with 4 great and viable ideas for a marketing campaign we were about to launch.
We ran a similar session for another project a week later and generated similar results.
I've been involved in dozens of worst possible ideas sessions since then and find it incredibly effective.
What makes it work?
I don't underestimate the ice breaking aspect of this methodology. Awkward and silent brainstorms that lack energy are perhaps the worst type. With this method, you simply don't get that.
It also gets everyone contributing - even those who are ordinarily quiet and introverted. We don't feel as "on the spot," and under pressure when being asked for a bad idea as we do when someone puts us in a team brainstorm and asks us to put our finest ideas out there for the scrutiny of our colleagues.
But there's more to it than that. Having a list of awful ideas means you have a starting point. You're not starting with an intimidating blank sheet of paper. So what you end up with is an energized and comfortable group of people developing on something already there.
That's a totally different type of session to be involved in. And it's far less painful than those awful brainstorming sessions too many of us have become accustomed to.