A rain dance for your brainstorm
Some follow the rule that there are no bad ideas. I understand that concept, it serves to encourage people to say their ideas out loud and share their creativity. The problem with that is that there is such thing as a bad idea. There are terrible, stupid, idiotic, missed-the-mark, never-gonna-happen, what-were-you-thinking ideas. I want to hear them in my brainstorms. There is a better way to create an environment of safety and positivity that makes even your quietest team members speak up in a brainstorm and your loudest ones listen. Consider this a parable for getting your team to become more active in a brainstorm, even when things seem to be dead silent or off-track. Consider having your own bad idea as a rain dance to end the creative drought.
At an agency I used to work at we had a large brainstorm for new business cards. Colleagues from all departments and all levels of seniority were present to help come up with ideas. We started with the alphabet game to warm up and get everyone nice and loose. There was a big blank white board and an esteemed member of the client services team leading with dry-erase marker in-hand. She wrote “NEW BUSINESS CARDS” in red across the top and added a bullet point beneath, slightly to the left. Objectives were declared, and were admirably simple: We want to be proud to hand over this card and we want it to help us make a memorable impression. Typical brainstorm questions were asked about what we might want them to look like, how we want to be represented, if they should be fun and weird, or traditional and professional.
The questions were good primers and essential for our objectives, however the room was nearly silent. People more comfortable with speaking up spoke up, but they don’t necessarily have the greatest ideas and for this project especially we wanted to be sure to have input from as many people as possible. After all, these are business cards that everyone would hand out and carry with them. To that point, it was an open invitation that drew a large group; my colleagues were interested in what would represent them and the company.
The leader kept priming and a few bullet points went on the board, but the brainstorm was slow, it was uninspired, and it was boring. No idea had any traction. The leader interrupted a drawn out silence with “Anything?” I am typically one to be heard in brainstorms, but I hadn’t contributed anything to this point. I had one bad idea that popped into my head a couple of times, but I didn’t want to say it because I knew it was bad — precisely the kind of mindset I discourage. It was that question of “Anything?” that made me decide it was better than nothing. I said “Mouse traps!” in nearly a shout and was answered with fixed gazes. I persisted with that idea to suggest that we print our names and contact information on the back of mouse traps so that when we hand them out, they’ll snap down on the recipient’s hand so that they literally wouldn’t be able to put it down and they would certainly remember who you were.
There is such thing as a bad idea.
There were laughs as I soldiered through my description, of course, and nobody took it seriously for a moment. There was sarcastic agreement, then suggestions on how it should work, what side of the trap should we print on, how would we make sure they wouldn’t snap on our own hands or in our pockets, and what partnerships we could have with exterminators. The conversation was productively unproductive.
I had set the bar low and there is no better place to start than the bottom. The discussion was productively unproductive as ideas appeared, shifted, and evolved into viable concepts. Somehow the mouse traps became electronic, then a simple paper version, then somehow we got into holograms, music boxes, and origami animals. Everything else anyone said was an improvement. I suspect that many of the ideas that came out were ones that people had in their heads from the start. Mouse traps was a fun idea, fun is disarming, disarmed people speak up.
We ended up with lovely cards, they were printed with foil and had our photos on them. They were on good card stock and made interesting use of colour. I was proud to carry them and proud to hand them out. They were nothing particularly special, nothing ridiculous, nothing exceptional. They looked good and met our objectives perfectly. Nobody would ever be able to tell that at one point mouse traps were discussed as an alternative.
There is an art to setting that baseline. It must be done constructively and earnestly, even if it is laughable. Mouse traps worked for business cards because it was relevant and kept objectives in mind. It invited criticism rather than dismissal and by explaining my idea more fully, I showed others how they might speak up and contribute as well. It was about leadership as much as it was about creativity. Instead of telling people that there are no bad ideas, it is better to show them that there are and that it’s perfectly safe to have them.