Dumb ideas that can unlock new opportunities
I first heard the term Intermediate Impossible in a presentation on creativity given by John Cleese.
You can watch it on YouTube, I highly recommend it. The term was originally coined in 1973 in the book ‘Po: Beyond Yes and No’ by Edward De Bono, he introduces the concept as a tool to use in the creative process. An Intermediate Impossible is an idea that in itself is impossible (or highly impractical) but that spurs better ideas that are possible. Think of them as wobbly stepping stones while crossing a river – not a great place to stop, but they can help you to get to your goal.
In the creative process these bridging points can be the key to opening up new directions; they might even take you to some completely new ideas. This is in contrast to the processes of incremental change which is better suited to the refinement of an established idea.
In short, they are the wild ideas and opportunities that help when you’re looking to create something new.
What do they look like
The best way to describe and explain Intermediate Impossibles is to look at some of their defining characteristics. The list below represents some of the facets of Intermediate Impossibles that i’ve seen, there may well be others. This isn’t an exhaustive list they may be one, or a combination of, the following…
On the surface a bit dumb
They might look stupid for any number of feasibility reasons, they might have a child-like naïvity, they might make most people roll there eyes dismissively. They are probably the kind of ideas that would have got you into trouble at school because they weren’t “sensible”. The important thing is to let the idea live for a while so that others can analyse it an find hidden value.
For me, the best sign of a healthy creative process is laughter. When you hear a project group laughing and talking and sharing ideas it’s a sure sign that the creative juices are flowing. An Intermediate Impossible can often sound a bit like the punchline to a bad joke (chocolate teapot? Inflatable dartboard etc). A playful state of mind is one of the cornerstones of creativity (see this film about an Elementary Class demonstrating amazing creativity) and a funny ideas are useful both as ideas and triggers help everyone get into a playful state.
Likely to dismissed for practical reasons
Intermediate Impossibles are easy targets for early dismissal by traditional measures of quality. The worst thing you can do to to an Intermediate Impossible is analyse it too quickly – it’s natural when coming up with ideas to give them a quick mental check to make sure they wont make you sound stupid. Whatever you do, don’t fall into this trap, it’ll limit you possibilities and kill your creative flow.
The simple solution here is to say “there are no bad ideas” and encourage everyone to postpone their analysis and judgement; there will be plenty of time for that later.
Intermediate Impossibles might be a little risqué or inflammatory, but these provokative ideas can prompt the even quietest member of a team into action. It’s also common to see a provokative idea generating more discussion, and from this discussion can come more interesting questions and answers.
This is a difficult goal to aim for when shaping an idea, it’s natural to want to think it through before sharing it with a group; however a half-baked idea can encourage others to step in and add their own input. The group may not build in the direction of the original thought but this is fine, it might actually fly away in a new and better direction, one the first contributor hadn’t even considered.
Many of the best Intermediate Impossibles look exactly like something only a child could dream up. A childlike mindset is an openness to play and exploration, it’s a willingness to take voyages into the fantastical. If you can embrace this mindset you’ll come up with much more interesting ideas.
It’s this ‘state of play’ that John Cleese talks about as a key part of the creative process (see the video above). If you’ve got a spare 36 minutes it’s really worth a watch/listen.
So what’s so good about Intermediate Impossibles?
I’ve been working at IDEO for about two years and have seen Intermediate Impossibles used in three key ways. We use them in various stages of the creative process (although they don’t get referred to as Intermediate Impossibles when we work – that would be far too pretentious).
So here’s three ways you might use them in your creative process:
1 — The Icebreaker
At the very beginning of a brainstorm encouraging people to imagine a deliberately stupid ideas can be a great way to break the ice and get the creativity going. Throw out some dumb ideas and get the ball rolling. This approach is very similar to another Medium post by Jon Bell called McDonalds Theory, you should read that too.
2 — The Generative
Once you’ve got specific questions to answer, and you’re trying to rapidly generate ideas, Intermediate Impossibles can be thrown into the mix at any point. This is the most common time to use Intermediate Impossibles and the way that Edward De Bono discusses them as well. It’s very important at this stage that the ideas aren’t dismissed too quickly, at IDEO one of our ‘Rules Of Brainstorming’ is to defer judgement this means withholding your concerns to allow others the chance to build on the idea to get to somewhere new.
3 — The Sacrificial Prototype
The final use for Intermediate Impossibles is when developing products or services along with potential users (often refered to as co-creation). Once you have an idea with potential, build a sacrificial prototype* that you can share it with others. We call them “sacrificial” as we don’t mind if a potential user rips them to shreds (sometimes literally), so long as they articulate their concerns at the same time. People are much better at telling you what’s wrong with an idea than what’s right with it.
These prototypes are intentially half finished, this way the user can help you build the idea further. As with other Intermediate Impossibles we put aside feasibility concerns, a prototype might represent an idea that could be impossible to actually mass produce or not be cost effective. These sacrificial concepts are not solutions in themselves; the aim is to improve the idea with the user.
These prototypes will benefit from being neutral in terms of colour and branding, this way the user reacts with fewer preconceptions, they will fill in the blanks and reveal more than a simple interview could. The prototype can make many assumptions about feasibility and viability – put them aside for now – the aim here is to improve the idea with the user.
Intermediate Impossibles often raise more questions than they answer, in some ways this is their purpose: they give you a new set of questions adjacent to your original. Where you may have become stuck in a rut with the old way of thinking they change your direction in search of something new.
As a final point, a reminder of the most important thing when using Intermediate Impossibles: their inherent fragitily. As ideas they need to be allowed to exist long enough for someone to find some hidden value, this is best summarised by Edward De Bono:
“Instead of rejecting the idea at once you look at it a bit longer and find good points that you would never have noticed had you rejected it right away.”