Sorry, Brainstormers, But There ARE Such Things As Bad Ideas.

We’ve all been there: sitting for hours in a window-less, air-less conference room with a collection of colleagues, “brainstorming” ideas for some project. The folks in the room are taking turns spouting half-baked, half-witted concepts that wouldn’t solve the original problem, even with the largest budget on record. But no one is stopping them, correcting them, even pausing to question. That’s because they’re all subscribing to the key rule of brainstorming, as developed by Alex Osborn in the late 1940’s – the absence of criticism and negative feedback. “There are no bad ideas,” the facilitator continuously states. “Oh, yes, there are,” you think.

Thankfully, there is a growing evidence that suggests that old-school brainstorming is ineffective. An article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer points to studies by Charlan Nemeth that suggest the ineffectiveness stems from the very thing that is held most sacrosanct – the absence of critical thinking. “Debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas, but, rather, stimulate them,” Nemeth said. As more and more creativity is being done by groups, the old rules of brainstorming are outdated.

So, what are some more appropriate rules for collaborating and brainstorming for creativity?

1) It’s not a numbers game
Don’t think that collecting “as many ideas as we can” is a good goal. Instead, focus on getting a few good ones. So often, the goal for quantity overwhelms our desire for usable, executable, or relevant ideas. Less can be more.

2) Allow criticism and debate
If an idea can’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s likely not a very good one. Conversely, if you give a germ of an idea some critical thinking as fertilizer, it can really sprout into something. Negativity in a brainstorm might take away some of its feel-good vibe, but it will also add some creative conflict, adaptation and lateral thinking. As Nemeth says, “criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. The power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.” Allow yourself some judgment – this will also save you time later

3) Be bad on purpose
Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) points to a tactic he discovered early in his career as a television writer, called the “bad version”. When you know there’s a creative solution but can’t come up with it yet, you start with a bad version of the idea – if only to stimulate others to come up with the good version. In this scenario, people don’t applaud the bad version like a bad answer on “Family Feud” (“Good answer, good answer”) – they, instead, critique it and find a better version.

4) Assign pre-work
One tactic for better brainstorming would be to assign people with homework to arrive with ideas. This serves a couple of purposes. One, they have some uninterrupted, private time to do some thinking, with no in-room pressure. And, two, it forces individuals to be a bit more critical of their own ideas, hopefully ensuring a higher quality of ideas from the get-go.

5) Steal good ideas from others
Often, a great source of ideas can be “proven” ideas from other, unrelated disciplines, categories, industries. Moving these everyday ideas from one category to a new one can turn them from standard operating procedure to breakthrough and revolutionary. Bill Taylor, in an HBR Blog article, points to Lexus’ leveraging of Apple’s and Four Season’s approaches to the customer experience as one example.

6) Punt, early and often
Don’t waste time trying to turn every bad idea into a good one. Sometimes your time is better spent by simply brooming them, and moving on. Yes, many times bad ideas can help lead you to good ones, but that won’t always be the case. So be judicious in your time spent on the baddies.

Do you agree? What are your brainstorming beliefs?


  1. You need to acknowledge the antecedent ingredient of trust if you want these critical thinking exercises to be embraced. Too often the agency environment is about politics and cliques and not ensemble collaboration. People want to make sure they get their goods. Critical thinking occurs when interpersonal respect exists (the rules of debate are there for a reason), and I don’t see an ad agency being a respectful environment.

  2. This post is a bad idea and should be broomed ;>)

    Seriously, the points you all make are good IMHO. The politics and clique motivars can be very strong in such sessions and often they have a hidden agenda, and the sessions contrived to create an illusion of “ownership”. In my experience the best ideas can be found in brainstorming sessions, so long as all involved are willing to debate the pros, cons, purpose, costs, likelihoods etc. This takes a bit of character from all involved – to separate any critical comments from being personal, and see them as a comment designed to improve or sort ideas. Often people can take such feedback as personal criticism (and I suggest these people may not work well in a true “brainstorm” session). As with all things in life some of the debate will be motivated by personalities and agenda, rather than substance. It takes a leader or team of leaders to see past this, sift through, identify and then nurture the good ideas – in essence try to “pick winners” based on their experience and instinct. The delicate matter is if everyone has been told there are no “bad ideas” is to let them down respectfully if none of their ideas are taken forward. Everyone involved needs to have a voice and be heard and all need to be willing to consider other ideas, if true ownership is important. If someone has their mind made up, brainstorm sessions are still useful as a “bastard review” to see how well an idea withstands scruitiny and challenge – something we use alot to test our ideas, positions and arguments before we let them loose.

  3. Good post. Brain storms are often just ill prepared, self congratulatory fluff sessions. Bad ideas are good for the debate but they need to be debated and dismissed as such. Everyone should have done their research and most importantly,there should be a goal to the brainstorm. So many of these meetings are not led strongly enough.

  4. I think a key to having a good brainstorming session is clearly lay out the issue that needs to be solved in adavnce and then ensure that you have only the people you need in the meeting. Extraneous people can greatly slow the process, as you have to explain a lot of the details to them, and can frustrate the people that may be able to help resolve the situation. I have sat in many brainstorming sessions where a senior leader just wanted to hear their own voice. They controlled the conversation and the other participants get frustrated and eventually disengage because they can’t get a word in edgewise. I like to communicate the issue to all participants well in advance of the meeting and then ask each of them to propose a solution or two. We then go around the room and let everyone throw out their ideas. This forces everyone to think about the issue in advance and it gives everyone a voice. After that, it is my job as the leader to help steer the group to objectively finding the best alternative. This approach may not be perfect, but I have had a lot of success with it.

  5. Great brainstorming sessions are a science !! There are definitely such things as bad ideas – lots of them .. we see them every day ! You need a trained professional facilitator to design and execute incredibly productive sessions ! The facilitator is responsible for the positive outcomes of the session – in my opinion a session without a trained facilitator is like a car without a steering wheel.

  6. There is a nice brainstorming tool that has the potential to eliminate the need to call out a bad idea while at the same time eliminating any bias/politics in a group setting. I haven’t used it yet, and have no connection to the company, but am looking forward to testing it. Here’s the link:

  7. Have had great success with Six Hats (Edward DeBono’s system). It’s essence is that it enables ideas and then drives them through positive, negative and “how do we do this” filters. That drives the group toward keeping ideas that have a legitimate chance of making it. And that guy in the back who loves to bazooka everyone’s ideas, actually gets to do that when the room puts on their “Black Hat” – to explore all the reasons this idea won’t work. At the end – it’s remarkably fast – what’s left are ideas that have promise.

  8. My slogan: “There is a solution at the table.” All you have to do is get them there.

    I love brainstorming with creative visionaries. Yes there are some bad ideas that come up, but it is those ideas that spark the creative mark with others who wouldn’t have thought of their award winning idea if they hadn’t heard the “not so good idea”.

    The key ingredient is who you choose to sit at the table. If you plan to produce some good creative advertising strategies, then place the right people who can actually think in that direction at your table. And some may not neccessarily be ad pros either, yet have the creative witt to chime in with some award winning concepts. Some of the best concepts I’ve ever heard of came from people who know how to think creatively – naturally.

    The key is having a team leader that can collect and sort what comes out of it and apply direction to the creatives capable of “owning the task” of producing the project in the correct context and delivery.

    Simple really…or is it?

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