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The amazing thing about bad ideas

Nicole Williams
Jul 6, 2016 · 4 min read

There’s a well known cliche, often cited in brainstorming sessions, that there’s “no such thing as a bad idea”. Unfortunately that’s not true, there’s plenty of bad ideas. Try arguing that ethnic cleansing or Nazism was a good idea and you will (hopefully) struggle.

Should we share our bad ideas?

Yesterday I read an intelligent and fascinating Medium post by Ethan Zuckerman. He covered what he’d learnt from the worst thing he’s read this year. Eric rips apart Shane Snow’s article “How How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix The Prison System”. Shane suggests that prison violence could be eliminated by keeping prisoners in isolation, providing counselling and family connection through VR headsets and feeding them liquid food.

Eric argues that Shane’s idea is a large-scale human rights violation which lacks evidence from either prisoners or their family. In the process he reasons we need to stop leaping to the conclusion that technology alone can solve complex social issues. By the end of the article, you’re thoroughly convinced Shane’s idea is a bad one.

Eric’s strongest criticism was that Shane attempted to solve a problem for which he had no real experience, without talking to anyone who has actually been incarcerated. This struck a chord with me. I’ve personally always struggled writing blog posts that are 100% opinion based. I generally link to supporting research or reference quotes to support my ideas.

I showed the article to my husband, commenting how Shane had come up with a bad idea without talking to any prisoners.

His response was smart; why does it matter? Isn’t it better to share ideas, even the bad ideas? They might help people come up with better ones. And straight away he riffed off Shane’s article and came up with the idea that home schooled children in remote areas could use VR headsets to enjoy recess with other kids in the same situation. Filling the major issue of home schooling, lack of social interaction with peers. That’s a good idea, that came from a bad idea.

Bad ideas lead to good ones

When Shane published his post, he most likely thought his solution was a good idea. It wasn’t until he shared it, and that others contributed they own ideas, that the flaws were exposed.

Has Shane failed? Nope, just like Thomas Edison, he’s just found a way that doesn’t work (hypothetically doesn’t work, Eric’s response also didn’t include actual prisoner input either).

“…Bad ideas have value. In other words, if I give you ten bad ideas, those probably didn’t have any value, but if it made you think of one that was good it’s like, “Oh, those ten ideas were bad, but that makes me think of this idea.” ~ Scott Adams, Dilbert creator

Researchers have found that a larger variance in the quality of ideas leads generating high-quality ideas. In other words, the more your ideas includes a mixture of good, bad and mediocre the more likely you are to stumble upon a great idea.

Bad ideas are part of the process

Research shows that having more ideas is the best way to have more good ideas.

“The strongest correlation for quality of ideas is, in fact, quantity of ideas. A closer look at the number of new products, songs, books, scientific papers, strategy concepts, ideas, ideas.” ~ Frans Johansson “The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures.”

The silver lining

What both Shane and Eric’s articles have achieved is getting thousands of people thinking about social and technology solutions to prison overcrowding and violence. These readers might have their own ideas for improving the prison system, or another problem space, after reading these pieces. More ideas leads to more good ideas. Talking about problems that need solving is never a bad thing.

There’s a big difference between a bad idea and bad filtering. If a justice department picked up Shane Snow’s idea and implemented it without any research, then that would be bad filtering. Not every idea is destined for reality.

The amazing thing about bad ideas is you can’t have good ones without them. When it comes to ideas, quantity is more important than quality. Understanding that bad ideas are part of the creative process helps alleviate the pressure of coming up with that one “big idea”. Sharing ideas, even the bad ones, can lead to the great ones.

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Nicole Williams

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Head of Product @TradeMe. Prev Head of Product @SilverStripe. Marketing blogger and podcaster at, everything else lands here.