how to turn bad ideas into good ones

You want a staff that generates new ideas, but you’re not going to be able to say yes to every new idea someone comes up with. But if you say no enough, you risk shutting down the flow of creativity. Sometimes, though, you can turn bad ideas into good ones, with a little effort – and in the process, coach your team members to refine their suggestions so that they become stronger over time. Here’s how.

* Look for what’s good in the idea, even if it’s just a kernel. Maybe the idea itself is workable or unrealistic, but perhaps there’s something good somewhere in there. For example, you might not be able to implement someone’s idea for a massive blow-out bash for your summer fellows, but you might recognize the value in doing somethingto recognize the fellows’ work and build camaraderie, so you might ask if there are other ways to achieve that goal. Phrases that can help:

  • “I like element X – how might we build on that?”
  • “What I like about that is…”
  • “I like that you’re thinking about X.”
  • “At the core of that idea, I think you’re getting at…”

* Isolate the piece that won’t work and ask if there’s a way around it. You might find that with some refining, the idea can turn into something more useful. And even if you determine that the whole idea is pretty bad, discussing it will give your group a chance to develop some shared evaluative principles.

* Test it with real-world concretes. For example, if a staff member proposes a new service you could offer to clients, you might say, “Can we take two real-life current clients and talk through how that would work them? How would we pitch it to them, and how would the work likely play out?”  In grounding the discussion in real-world examples, the weaknesses of the idea might quickly become apparent – but you might also be able to isolate the pieces that won’t work and some pieces that do, and then build on the latter.

* Be sure it’s really a bad idea. It can be easy to say no to something quickly – and sometimes we do it too quickly, especially if an idea is completely new to us. Be sure you say no, invest a little bit of time in taking it seriously and talking about how it would work and what the likely results would be. You might still end up at “no,” but you’ll demonstrate to employees that you value their thoughts enough to give their ideas real respect and exploration.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Bend & Snap*

    I think it should be “how to turn bad ideas into good ones” :)

    I know a lot of people who can turn good ideas into bad ones!

    1. Francesca*

      I thought it might be a “things not to do/don’t ruin good ideas” guide for a minute haha.

  2. F.*

    Asking for the impetus for the seemingly bad idea can help. Ask what is the problem that the presenter is trying to solve or what is the benefit they are seeking. They may be looking at something from so far outside the box that others aren’t even aware of the problem they are trying to solve.

    Alison also touches on something I like to do with ideas that seem at first glance to be good but that turn into bad ideas when the second or third tier ramifications are known. Many people cannot get past Stage 1 thinking without help seeing the bigger picture. Encouraging idea presenters to get past that stage can help obtain buy-in to rejecting or revising the idea.

  3. Jennifer*

    What I need is the guide for “how to make someone else higher up think my idea is their idea.” Seriously. We were supposed to have an org-wide “problem solving day” but my office didn’t hold it because our ruler doesn’t like any ideas that aren’t hers.

    1. Artemesia*

      I worked in an organization like this. When the guard changed, it didn’t matter how good an idea was, it wasn’t ‘new guys’ idea and his minions would harshly stamp anything out that was a holdover. I had the thrill of spending several years championing a really good idea that the leadership was resistant to, but finally got the okay and then a new leadership came in and killed it because it was from the old leadership (even though it wasn’t and had been pushed forward over their dead bodies.) Very discouraging.

      I also had the thrill of working for a boss who would publicly berate me for my terrible ideas in meetings and would then within a week or two adopt those policies and implement them without ever acknowledging where they came from.

  4. Great Ideas Here!*

    Or what about when it’s the executive leadership that keeps coming up with bad ideas and is perplexed when you don’t want to implement them – but you’re begging for just general direction and leadership so your team of excellent idea-generators/implementers can do their jobs and move the org forward.

    Yes, it’s been a frustrating week…I just realized it’s Tuesday :(

  5. azvlr*

    This is helpful for me. I was hired with a mandate to “breathe new life” into our team. Because I am new and not 100% familiar with the company culture, my ideas are often met with skepticism. Sometimes I get discouraged from this and have to remind myself of the mandate – Are my ideas dumb or is the group resistant to change?

    I am not the most articulate speaker, especially when nervous (and in true Catch-22 style, presenting my ideas to the group knowing they are likely to shoot me down, makes me nervous), so having some ways to frame my ideas will be very useful. Thanks!

  6. DuckDuckMøøse*

    I think this is a good piece for everyone to read, not just someone trying to lead a team. Ideas flow both ways. When our supervisor came in several years ago, his introductory line was “I’m an idea guy! I love coming up with new ideas! Of course, most of the time, my wife says my ideas are stupid – hahaha!”

    Well, it turned out, most of the time, his ideas ARE stupid. He gets so excited about the course he’s come up with, like a kid. We’ve managed to talk him out of some of the worst ones, but our method was more a group pile-on, instead of rational discourse. We would initially try some dialog, especially like F suggests, to see how he got there, what problem he thinks he is fixing, etc. It didn’t always go always go well, because he was so in love with his idea, he couldn’t take a step back to see our points. Then the pile-on would start. You can see it on his face when he basically gets shouted down by the entire team. It’s like someone kicked a puppy. Perhaps turning it around a bit, to make sure it’s frame properly, and look for any nuggets of usefulness, to show we respect the intent, if not the actual idea, would be good. As long as we can still reject the stupid stuff ;)

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