Many of us know that one secret to generating good ideas is producing bad ideas.  But if you look on your bookshelf or visit the best creativity and productivity blogs – or even ask Mr. Google “how to come up with bad ideas” —  you won’t find much guidance.

Thank goodness, then, for the brilliant and irrepressible Scott Adams. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, the Dilbert creator borrowed from his experience as a television writer to suggest one of the best creativity exercises I’ve encountered.

Here’s his explanation:

I spent some time working in the television industry, and I learned a technique that writers use. It’s called “the bad version.” When you feel that a plot solution exists, but you can’t yet imagine it, you describe instead a bad version that has no purpose other than stimulating the other writers to imagine a better version.

For example, if your character is stuck on an island, the bad version of his escape might involve monkeys crafting a helicopter out of palm fronds and coconuts. That story idea is obviously bad, but it might stimulate you to think in terms of other engineering solutions, or other monkey-related solutions. The first step in thinking of an idea that will work is to stop fixating on ideas that won’t. The bad version of an idea moves your mind to a new vantage point.

In the piece, Adams uses the bad version process to suggest some provocative (and hilarious) ideas for reducing the US federal budget deficit. But the broader technique can apply to just about any creative stumbling block.

So give it a try. I think you’ll find that it’s not, er, a bad idea.

26 Responses to “Why you should come up with at least 1 bad idea today”

  1. This is great advice! When I help clients improve their websites, one of the games I play with them is called, “A Little Bit Worse.”

    We brainstorm all the ways they could make their site LESS effective at achieving the desired outcome: make the phone number smaller, have their photos taken in Speedos (for most of my clients, anyway ;), add more options, etc.

    The result of this fun and easy exercise is to point the way to the opposite result: web pages that work better than what they have now.

    But so far no monkeys or palm frond helicopters. I see I’ve been lazy… 😉

  2. Done! Step 1 was easy enough. I was first to think of the bad idea. I will wear it like a badge of honor. The hard part now is to get the rest of room to move onto step 2.

  3. Jen Smith says:

    This is smart. When I brainstorm with my team, we try to “get all the bad ideas out first.” Just by saying the first (most obvious and cliche) thing that comes to mind, you get it out of your system. And then you can get over it and move on to the good ideas that are in there somewhere.

  4. Love this idea, but is there an understanding of “outrageous” versus “bad?” Seems to me that creating something crazy might work as well. Monkeys making a helicopter doesn’t sound bad, just weird. (C’mon – this is TV here.) That sounds like a great way to bring sanity into the idea as well, though.

  5. Great stuff. It’s always when you stop obsessing about finding the right solution that the best ideas come along, and this is a nice exercise to do just that.

  6. David Coffey says:

    Unfortunately, we do this all the time in education. Think: No Child Left Behind, Back to Basics, Race to the Top. The problem is that the idea isn’t recognized as bad (at least by the people who generated it).

  7. Dave Vesnaver says:

    Great idea, a slight variation on the “vuja de” idea you mentioned in your blog from Bill Taylor’s book. It seems to me it would be a great ice breaker during brainstorming sessions, rather than trying to come up with the great ideas right off the bat, working backwards from this “bad idea” would be a great starting point.

  8. A nice variation from the sabotage or negative idea generation we use. The sabotage is excellent for engineers since they seems to be naturals when it comes to find problems 😉

  9. Jan Stanich says:

    And sometimes you don’t know they’re bad ideas until you see them on paper.

  10. Anne Miles says:

    Love this thought. I work with a creative business client called 3C Creative Agency and they have a policy of ‘Silly Ideas’ which is much the same. The silly ideas are allowed and encouraged without judgment and are thought to lead to good ideas.

    Love this.

  11. RD Ford says:

    This sounds like a good idea. Like the old saying. We have to do something even if it is wrong. We have not hit pay dirt at this time as we are restructuring back to the highs we did gain on a lot of ideas that land on the self!

  12. Hugh Culver says:

    I’d like to use this strategy with my kids: OK, so you don’t have time to clean your room. Now what are all the bad ideas we can come up with for solving this (that don’t involve monkeys).

  13. C. A. Hurst says:

    Great post, Dan! Just borrowed it for FB.

  14. Great points, with a bad idea is much better than
    with no idea.

  15. Emma says:

    I love this idea. I work in product development, and I can attest that this works. When I’m feeling stuck, I just put something down on paper that other people can respond to. Invariably, they come up with fresh ideas that help me move forward.

  16. SJKP says:

    Many moons ago on a training course we were trying to solve the problem of traffic congestion around London. For a joke someone suggested dropping a bomb on London (the bad idea). However this sparked a whole debate about reducing the number of people in inner London e.g. encouraging people to live outside London, enouraging businesses to relocate etc.. (the good idea)

  17. Neal Ely says:

    If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different result, then to avoid insanity, we must learn from our ideas that do not work, or ideas that we know are bad ideas, based on past experience.

  18. John Wall says:

    I manage a team of writers that is responsible for outputting a huge number of pieces. Unfortunately, because they have to output so many pieces, innovation has lost its importance. I think I’m going to run a contest in the group to see who can come up with the worst script and we’ll vote on the ‘worst of the worst’. We’ll celebrate the worst idea as a way to show that all new ideas are of value.

  19. Tim says:

    I am regularly involved in idea sessions to generate concepts and ideas for various digital products and services.

    The obsession with finding the right solution is very difficult to overcome, especially with other team members, who regularly either focus far too quickly on the minutiae (i.e. its execution) or simply cant judge an idea because they have no way to measure its worth. In the latter, then just keep loading more and more thoughts in the hope that more makes more.

    The bad idea seems a great way to break this rigid thinking, and cut people a bit of slack so they can loosen up and stop over-complicating things.

  20. I had not heard of this idea of ‘coming up with a bad idea’ in order to think up a better one. While the premise seems to make sense on its face, I wonder if there has been any research done on this to prove its validity. In the meantime, it does seem to be useful trick to add to the toolbox.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  21. Scott Lum says:

    Bad ideas help me come up with my best ideas. Understanding the essence of a bad idea and then flipping it helps with brainstorming potentially great ideas.

  22. Great idea! I am going to try to apply this to my club sport on campus and see the results…I’ll keep you posted on how it works! They need drive as freshmen to reach for higher things. This may be just the right thing to kick them into gear! Thanks for today’s inspiration

  23. Gillian McCarthy says:

    I am reminded of the essay, “Failure is a Good Thing,” by Jon Carroll as part of NPRs “This I Believe” series.

  24. Marco says:

    I had never thought of that. Great idea. My readings on the internet only bring me good things!


  25. Lisa Hamaker says:

    Thanks Dan! Another great idea…

    Another way of talking about this is Ann Lamot’s “Bird by Bird’ where she talks about a “sh**ty first draft.” Quite useful for perfectionist writers like myself.

    And thanks Gillian for the link to This I Believe. I believe it will add it to my reading list.

    Just finished “A Whole New Mind” and am now inspired to engage my right brain and my bad ideas. Look out!

  26. Tony says:

    Now I know why I have so many good ideas…I have that many more “bad” ideas!