Go On… Break the Rules!

When is a rule really just a suggestion? And when do suggestions morph into rules? Every day, physical signs tell all of us what to do, written instructions direct us how to behave, and social guidelines urge us to act within specific parameters.

We also make lots of rules for ourselves. These rules become woven into our individual fabric as we go through life. We draw imaginary lines around what we think we can do — lines that often limit us much more than the rules imposed by society at large. We define ourselves by our professions, our income, where we live, the car we drive, our education, and even by our horoscope. Each definition locks us into specific assumptions about who we are and what we can do. I’m reminded of a famous line from the movie My Dinner with Andre, that states that New Yorkers “are both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have … the capacity to leave the prison they have made, or even see it as a prison.” What if you challenge the underlying assumptions?

One of the most most insidious rules we encounter is the distinction between good and bad ideas. When someone tells us that our idea is dumb or unrealistic, most of us see that as a “fact,” and give up on the idea. I’m a huge believer that there are always gems hidden in even the worst ideas. These gems, once polished, often shine much brighter than the ideas that seem good on the surface. The following exercise demonstrates this point:

First, I come up with a problem that is relevant for the particular group. For example, if it is a group of executives in the utility business, the topic might be getting companies to save energy; if it is a theater group, the problem might be how to attract a larger audience; and if it is a group of business students, the challenge might be to come up with a cool, new business idea.

I then break the group into small teams and ask each to brainstorm to come up with the BEST idea and the WORST idea for solving the stated problem. The best ideas should solve the problem brilliantly, and the worst ideas should be ineffective, unprofitable, and exacerbate the problem. Once they’re done, each teams select their best best idea and their worst worst idea on a separate piece of paper and pass both to me… I proceed to rip up their BEST ideas. After the time they spent generating these fabulous ideas, they are not too happy.

I then redistribute the WORST ideas. Each team now has an idea that another team thought was terrible. They’re instructed to turn this bad idea into a brilliant idea. At first, they gasp! Then, after a few moments, they realize that it really isn’t so bad after all. Soon, they decide that it is actually terrific!

When doing this exercise with a utility company, one of the “worst ideas” for saving energy was to give each employee a quota for how much energy he or she used and to charge extra for exceeding the allotment. They thought this was a pretty silly idea. The new team that got this idea turned it into something that is really worth considering — If individuals use less energy, they get money back. And, if they use more energy they are charged for it. They could even sell energy credits to their co-workers, giving them an even larger incentive to save electricity.

I did this exercise with the staff responsible for putting on arts events at Stanford. One of the teams charged with finding ways to bring in a larger audience came up with the “bad” idea of putting on a staff talent show. This is seemingly the opposite of what they do now — bringing in top-notch talent from around the world. The next team turned this idea upside down. They interpreted this much more broadly and proposed a big fund-raiser, where the faculty and staff across the university would showcase their diverse talents. This would very likely bring in lots of people who don’t normally go to performing arts events and would help build awareness for their other programs.

When the challenge was to come up with the worst business idea, the suggestions were boundless. One group suggested selling bikinis in Antarctica, one recommended starting a restaurant that sells cockroach sushi, and one group proposed starting a heart attack museum. In each of these cases, these bad ideas were transformed into pretty interesting ideas that deserved some real consideration. For example, the group that was tasked with selling bikinis in Antarctica came up with the slogan “Bikini or Die.” Their idea was to take people who wanted to get into shape on a trip to Antarctica. By the end of the hard journey, they would be able to fit into their bikinis. The group that needed to sell cockroach sushi came up with a restaurant called La Cucaracha that made all sorts of exotic sushi using nontraditional but nutritious ingredients and targeted adventurous diners. The group given the challenge of starting a heart attack museum used this idea as the starting point for a museum devoted entirely to health and preventative medicine. All groups came up with compelling business names, slogans, and commercials for these ventures.

This exercise is a great way to open your mind to solutions to problems because it demonstrates that most ideas, even if they look stupid on the surface, have a seed of potential. And, even more important, the “good” ideas were pretty lame — they were expected, incremental, and easy to digest. The terrible ideas, on the other hand, require some work to turn into something usable, but the results are truly innovative!

With the right frame of mind, you can find the seeds of possibility in the craziest ideas. This powerful mindset transforms the biggest challenges into the biggest opportunities. So, go on… break some rules!

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This is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, from the chapter, Bikini or Die.