Brilliance doesn’t come easy (or cheap) – it takes time, and in some cases, lots of work and collaboration. In fact, experts say only rarely do the best ideas, products and systems come in a “flash”– they almost always come as a slow burn, churning away at the back of your brain for days, weeks, even years. They’ve been rolled around and tested and prodded and poked at, until at last, you and others can no longer find any holes.
So how do you turn a bad idea into a good one? Sometimes it’s as easy as asking yourself a few key questions—namely, “Why?”
How many ideas can I come up with?
When folks want to do something important but claim they don’t know where to begin, many use the excuse, “I don’t have any ideas.” But that usually means they don’t have any good ones. Hundreds if not thousands of ideas are probably rolling around in your head right now… but most people lack a system for developing these ideas, and determining what’s worth keeping on the table.
The first step to landing a great idea is to dream up a bunch of terrible ones. Thinking up “bad” ideas on purpose frees your mind of preconceptions and gets you thinking outside of the box, plus, they’re easier to criticize and pick apart when you don’t have any personal attachment to them. In fact, the bad ideas themselves can often lead to good ones, or, will at least give you practice in asking the right questions.
So, do a “mind dump” of a brainstorm, where everything is considered and nothing is too far fetched, silly, or “wrong”. Then, use a process for determining if something is worth re-thinking (you can do this by asking some of the questions below). Or, if you’re having trouble with your initial brainstorm, perhaps it’s worth coming at your problem or question from a different angle:
What are the core values at play?
Rather than ask yourself “What’s going to work in this situation?” you might start with, “What problem am I trying to solve?” Is there demand in the marketplace for a new product? Is there a breakdown of communication at work? Are you in need of a career change, but not sure where to begin?
For example, “How can we improve communication in our work group?” could be more focused by asking, “Why do we want to improve communication in our work group?” Perhaps the reasons are that it’s difficult to schedule everyone in the same room at the same time, miscommunications over emails have been common, or that it’s been hard to keep up momentum on important directives. Identifying the reasons behind the problem could lead you to think of new policies or solutions that address the core issues, such as “Email questions for clarifications, but new proposals should always be pitched in person.” An example of this process in a business context could be:
Idea: “We should use Go-To-Meeting.” Ask, “Why?” Answer: “Because then we don’t have to be in the same room to meet.” Why? “Because we’d like to reward employees with a more flexible work-life-balance.” Why? “Because Happy Employees are often Better Employees.” Mining the idea for meaning can help you identify what matters most about your solution.
Ask, “Why is this a bad idea?”
Now that you have a good handle on what your core mission is, it’s a good idea to follow a similar system to dig even deeper.
Take, for example, the brainstorms that seem totally wrong – way out in left field. Address each one and ask yourself why it won’t work. Is it that the scope of the idea is too small? Is it too big? Do you not have the resources? This can help focus the brainstorm and uncover even more information about your problem. In fact, it may even spark solutions.
Even as you uncover the reasons your idea may not work, pretend for a moment that you’re a used car salesman, and your commission is riding on selling your (bad) idea to a potential customer. By doing so, you’re sure to uncover your idea’s good qualities. Could your idea work for a different context? Could it work under different circumstances?
For the earlier question, “How can we improve communication for our work group?” you might have thought of a solution to hold a quarterly corporate retreat and fly members out to meet in person. When you ask yourself, “Why is this a bad idea?” the reason might be” “The travel budget isn’t big enough.” But when you ask “Why?” yet again, you might uncover that it’s really about budget allocation and that moving some money around is actually smarter than installing a state-of-the-art, expensive video conferencing system in every office. Don’t eliminate a bad idea until you’re sure it’s not a good one in disguise.
Now ask, “Why is this a good idea?”
Now that you’ve eliminated the duds, it’s time to attack the ideas that you actually think are feasible. Ask “why” again – this time, why it might be a GOOD idea. Let’s say you’re bumping up your personal social media efforts and your idea is to start a Twitter presence. Ask yourself, “Why?” and your answer might be, “Because others in my field use Twitter.” Again, ask, “Why?” “Because they want to position themselves as engaged and media-savvy, as do I.” Again, the question should be, “Why?” “Because potential employers could see my work there and give me jobs.” Now THAT’S a reason to act on.
Can I simplify?
Can you describe your idea to a small child? It’s hard to explain tough concepts to a kid but if you can do that effectively, it probably means you know your idea really well, and have boiled it down to its simplest parts. Grown-ups like to complicate explanations with lots of big words, fancy language and long sentences. Strip all that away, and you’ll probably have a more effective message for your pitch.
Who knows? Your terrible idea might just be gift wrapped in the wrong paper — and if you tug at the string a bit, you might just unravel all the right answers.
Photo Courtesy of: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a4/Idea