When is “No Idea is a Bad Idea” a Bad Idea?

By Jon Miller Updated on October 13th, 2019

Brainstorming is an often-used method to generate ideas from a group of people for solving problems. One of the cardinal rules is not to criticize ideas as people raise them. We are reminded, “No idea is a bad idea.” One of the aims of this rule is to remove fear of criticism of ideas. Another is to encourage people to add their “wild” ideas without self-censoring. The belief is that variety and quantity of ideas will result in quality.

This rule works well when the main purpose of brainstorming is social. That is, when making people feel heard is as important or perhaps more important than coming up with a practical solution via the brainstorm. This is sensible when considering that a 10/10 idea with 5/10 acceptance may be doomed to fail. “No idea is a bad idea” brainstorms can effectively collect and organize people’s pent up good ideas and common sense improvements. They can tap the collective wisdom for solutions to sporadic problems with relatively obvious or simple causes.

Taking a fishbone diagram cause-and-effect brainstorming as an example, we may identify a variety of factors that could contribute to the problem phenomena. As structured brainstorming, we are encouraged to list 4M (machine, method, manpower, materials) and environmental variables. Combined with direct observation, this is a good way to start getting a grip on the situation in order to forma a general consensus on avenues of exploration.

However, the fishbone diagram is a crude method that is made somewhat less reliable when the rule is that “no idea is a bad idea”. We may brainstorm logically unrelated factors, and spend time investigating them. We can leave out critical factors because we lack a basic understanding of equipment, materials or the effects of environmental conditions. When no idea is bad, we may be steered toward politically-motivated solutions rather than rational ones. We may brainstorm contradicting factors in the same diagram, e.g. both too hot and too cold, when it cannot be both. The “no idea is a bad idea” rule yields diminishing returns as problems shift from sporadic to chronic, observable causes to ones that are less so, and from simple causes to multiple interacting factors.

Without root cause analysis, problem solving is just fire-fighting or band-aid application. That is to say, it is problem solving theater, not actual problem resolution. Sometimes it is okay to wing it and sometimes it is necessary to do our homework, set intelligent constraints and take a professional approach. When should we employ brainstorming and when should we employ problem-solving approach guided by logic, an understanding of the causal factors and principles that create the problem phenomena?

Moderated debate and discussion serve to turn average ideas into good ones. By identifying bad ideas and clarifying through discussion why they are bad, we can learn better ways of thinking. There is nothing wrong with having a bad idea. There is something wrong with not pointing out, “That is a bad idea. Here is the flaw in thinking that lead to it. This is how to think better in the future.”

  1. Jack Day

    October 30, 2019 - 3:10 pm

    Great article by Jon Miller. I believe that the use of “No idea is a bad idea” in brainstorming sessions should be circumstantial. This culture in group brainstorming positively effects the communication among members, strengthening a network that will work to implement the solution or idea. I agree with Jon’s idea of “No idea is a bad idea” but further investigating and learning from a bad idea can improve a teams thought processes. I will implement this process into the brainstorming sessions on my green belt project, understanding why a bad idea fails will lengthen the time associated with brainstorming but all members will have a full understanding of the problems scope and range of solutions.

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