We’re taught from a young age to fear bad ideas. Gold stars, straight As, 4.0 GPAs—there are wrong answers, and we reward those who know the right ones. The kids labeled as bright have a strong recall of facts and figures, but unconventional ideas are often discouraged.
When you look beyond the messages drilled into us in childhood, though, many of the best ideas in the real world began as off-the-wall, “terrible” concepts. From the lightbulb to the cheeseburger, some of the ideas that changed the course of human history (or at the very least, American cuisine) were once pooh-poohed by the establishment.
That’s why it’s time for us to rethink—and even embrace—the bad idea.
What is a bad idea?
Typically when people label an idea “good” or “bad,” there’s a value judgment attached to the concept. Ideas labeled as bad are often ones people can’t imagine fitting within our current paradigm. The idea is so novel, those who hear it short-circuit and rush to label it “bad.” It’s time for us to change that.
Lynn Altman, who regularly runs brainstorming sessions in her work as president and founder of Brand Now, says all ideas are welcomed without judgment in her sessions. Yes, she says, there is such a thing as a bad idea. But it’s not the out-there-ness of the concept that makes an idea bad. It’s only bad if it’s not feasible.
Ideas that are too expensive or logistically challenging to implement are actually bad. However, all other ideas that fall within the parameters of time, space, and resources (financial or otherwise) are fair game.
The bad idea reframe and developing a growth mindset
One problem that arises from our societal fear of bad ideas is that it sets us up to embrace a fixed mindset.
Fixed mindset, a concept first introduced by psychologist Carol Dweck, is characterized by an assumption that your intelligence is static. If you’re told your ideas are dumb and you have a fixed mindset, then you assume it’s because you are dumb. It leaves you no shot at getting smarter—no opportunity for redemption. Who would continue sharing ideas if they believed this about themselves?
On the other hand, a growth mindset contends that intelligence isn’t innate; it can be developed. What a freeing concept! If we’re not the sum of our bad ideas, then we always have the opportunity to grow and learn.
Growth mindsets create a positive feedback loop. Individuals with growth mindsets are more willing to share their wacky concepts because they don’t see bad ideas as a reflection of their inherent aptitude. The more ideas they share, the more confident they become. This confidence breeds even more creative thinking and the development of bolder, more innovative ideas.
Achieving great things requires a willingness to fail. Teams must accept that bad ideas are okay. We all have them from time to time. And bad ideas are not a demonstration of our worth or intelligence.
Work the bad idea muscle
So how do we collectively learn to love the bad idea and develop a growth mindset? Eschewing fear around wrong answers and bad ideas is challenging. Our beliefs about bad ideas are deeply engrained.
The first step is admitting you have a problem. If you lead a creative team, introduce them to the concept of fixed versus growth mindset. Let them know bad ideas are a normal, inevitable part of the creative process.
Start a book club where you read biographies of great creative thinkers and learn about their failures and triumphs. Open up to your team about your own bad ideas. Ask colleagues to share theirs.
When you run brainstorming sessions, keep things flowing. Your team should share an idea and move on with as little preamble or downtime between thoughts as possible. The faster the group moves, the less space there is for judgment.
Achieving great things requires a willingness to fail. Teams must acknowledge that a bad idea is okay. We all have them from time to time. And having a bad idea is not a demonstration of our worth or intelligence.
Imagine if Edison had been shamed out of creating the lightbulb or Ford had given up on the automobile. While some sneered at these seemingly outlandish ideas, the innovators stuck to their guns.
We’re all the better for these crazy ideas. If you’re ready to inspire risk-taking and creative thought within your organization, break down the cultural structures that judge bad ideas. Invite your team to dismantle them, too. Then gather everyone around and toast to your collective willingness to be bold and, sometimes, bad.