The Best Teams Embrace the Worst Ideas
Try the ‘wrong thinking’ technique to find new ways of solving problems
In college, I took a product-design class that was largely based on group projects. For most of them, the process would play out like this: We’d read and digest the brief, begin some idea generation, and then get nowhere. My classmates and I, worried about looking stupid, would mutter bland, obvious suggestions that lacked any real creativity. Or we’d come up with a single idea and then stop, convinced it was the best thing we’d be able to think of.
Luckily, the lecturers were prepared for this. Whenever a team became too fixated on an idea or struggled to find a way to progress, they would challenge us instead to come up with something else: the worst possible idea. When they first introduced this activity, many of us were taken aback. It didn’t seem to make any sense. Why start at the bottom?
It turns out there’s a method to the madness. Intentionally trying to come up with the worst idea is known as “wrong thinking,” and it’s a technique that’s been used by innovators like Apple designer Jonathan Ive and brain-training pioneer Edward de Bono.
Wrong thinking has several benefits. One is that the creative pressure is removed: Starting with the worst possible ideas means even the most self-conscious participants can relax and open up their minds. Everyone can come up with a bad idea. The energy will be livelier, and the session will become more productive. Also, the process allows you to immediately determine the outcomes you’re not looking for. Each bad suggestion highlights potential mistakes and issues to avoid going forward.
But the most surprising benefit of wrong thinking is that it can lead you to good ideas. It can take you into areas that were thought to be a no-go and help you break down taboos. It can force you to go against your own biases and principles and open your eyes to possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Bryan Mattimore, the cofounder of the Growth Engine Company, practices the wrong thinking technique in brainstorming sessions with his teams. A 2017 story published on Inc. describes how Mattimore once led the exercise with a group of bankers, asking them to come up with the worst ideas they could think of for marketing the bank and its ﬁnancial products. Here’s what happened:
“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.’”
The Inc. piece then goes on to describe what followed: Building on that deposits idea, someone else suggested rewarding customers for each transaction, an idea quite similar to the savings programs some banks now have in place. An outrageously bad idea led to a better one.
By starting with the worst possible ideas, you disrupt your ingrained thinking processes and are suddenly free. You’re able to go where others won’t. So the next time you and your team feel stuck, ask yourselves: How can we create something that makes everyone angry? How can we make sure we’re laughed at? What can we implement that is completely awful? In looking for the worst idea, you might just find your best one.