The Bad Idea Brainstorm – use the worst possible idea to loosen up timid participants

Convincing participants to actively contribute during a brainstorm session isn’t always easy. Some people are terrified to share creative ideas in front of colleagues, or worse: their manager. After all, by sharing a wild idea you risk making a fool of yourself. It’s the facilitator’s job to get past these reservations. One way to do this is by holding a Bad Idea Brainstorm; an exercise that encourages a group to search for the worst possible idea.  

The fear of sharing ideas

A brainstorm session can be fun and inspiring. At the same time, some participants freeze when they’re asked to share creative ideas. Convincing these participants to join in can be quite a struggle.

When expectations are high (“we’re looking for a brilliant solution”) some participants will be terrified to say something wrong. It can be scary to share your first idea in a creative session. What if others make fun of your idea? What if they tear apart a good idea that might be phrased a bit clumsily? It’s total humiliation you’re risking. Better to be safe and silent…

As facilitator of a creative session, you’ll have to deal with reluctance like this. Luckily, there are ways to get participants ‘warmed up’ creatively. You could, for instance, start your session with a warming up exercise. Ask participants to discuss a ridiculous ‘What if…’ statement, for instance. What if all children would be invisible? What if every person in the world had a pet giraffe? Allowing participants to discuss what such a world would look like, helps the group to relax. Laughingly fantasising about such a ridiculous scenario eases people into the practice of sharing odd ideas. After a few minutes of craziness, sharing ‘wild’ ideas is not nearly as scary anymore.

You can even use a warming up exercise to find solutions to tough organisational challenges. One way to do this is by holding a Bad Idea Brainstorm.

The ‘Bad Idea Brainstorm’

As the name suggests, during a Bad Idea Brainstorm, you’re looking for the worst possible ideas. Instead of encouraging your participants to come up with new and useful ideas, you’re pushing them to suggest increasingly ridiculous ideas. Ask them to come up with the worst possible idea for your situation. What would be the most ill-advised, unethical, unrealistic or useless approach? Even illegal ideas should be embraced during this exercise.

Participants should pointedly avoid looking for the right answer. It’s by listing all the ‘wrong’ answers that they’ll get into the creative mindset you’re looking for.

How a Bad Idea Brainstorm helps participants to break free

In contrast to the situation I described at the start of this article, a Bad Idea Brainstorm doesn’t put any pressure on the participants. You don’t need a good idea to contribute. On the contrary, the lousier your idea, the better. The Bad Idea Brainstorm is a lighthearted and fun exercise. Any idea will do. Therefore, participants will feel free to share their thoughts. You can’t possibly mess up, so there’s no reason to be afraid to make a fool of yourself.

By breaking down barriers, this exercise ensures that all contribute equally. Reserved participants experience that they have no trouble keeping up and this boosts their confidence. All the laughter that naturally follows the terrible ideas makes the group relax even more.

And the best part? If you analyse all the ‘bad’ ideas, you’ll find surprising insights that you might otherwise never have found. Insights, of course, that you can use to design useful solutions.

How it works

The goal of the exercise is to list as many bad ideas as possible. Next, you’ll use the insights this uncovers as raw input for developing great ideas.

The Bad Idea Brainstorm consists of several steps:

Step 1. Inform the participants of the goal of the session. Make sure there can be no mistake about the central question.

Step 2. Generate as many bad ideas as possible and make sure all participants contribute. No idea is off-limits. Help participants with questions like ‘What’s the worst way of solving this problem?’, ‘What might be some unethical solutions we could develop?’ or ‘What would be a useless service we could offer?’

Step 3. List all bad ideas and describe per idea what it is that makes it such a terrible idea.

Step 4. Look for ways of using these insights to your advantage. Can you inverse the elements that make an idea bad? Or could you replace the bad elements with something else?

Your role as facilitator

Make sure participants share extremely bad ideas. It will be tempting for a participant to share merely mediocre ideas. However, if you’re looking for great insights, you’ll need to make sure the creative energy flows optimally. Therefore, truly terrible ideas must be shared. Ideas that might, under normal circumstances, cost you your job. So be sure to provoke the group. There’s always a worse idea!

A Bad Idea Brainstorm will loosen up even the timidest of participants. Furthermore, the exercise often leads to surprisingly interesting insights. By listing what will NEVER work, you’ll allow yourself to figure out what might work spendidly.



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