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The Highly Effective, Counterintuitive Way to Stumble Upon Your Next Brilliant Idea

Don’t only ask for great ideas when brainstorming solutions to challenging problems.

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BY Stephen Shapiro - 06 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When brainstorming, we typically ask people to give us their best ideas. But what if the path to finding great ideas is to intentionally find start with terrible ones?

Think about the world prior to vaccines. What would be the dumbest way to prevent an outbreak of polio? Inject everyone with the virus. But, of course, that is exactly how it is done.

Our flight to the moon was made possible through a worst idea. What if the rocket ship falls apart after take-off? That sounds like a crazy idea. But this concept was a critical factor in the success of the Apollo missions: the rocket boosters containing the fuel fall off early during the trip to the moon.

The "bad idea" concept doesn't just apply to complex technical problems like health and space travel.

Imagine you are looking to sell more raisins. You might focus on the health benefits, the sweet taste, or the various uses ranging from cereals to desserts. In 1987, an advertising team working on this problem exhausted all obvious options, when one of the writers said, "We have tried everything but dancing raisins singing 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine.'" As silly as it sounded, they ran with the idea and to their surprise, the commercial became wildly popular, spawning future commercials, two TV specials, and a Saturday morning cartoon series.

And at times, a bad idea can yield lifesaving results.

Consider a company whose manufacturing process is complex and potentially dangerous. Their goal is to reduce accidents in the workplace. A good idea might be to add more safety inspectors. What would be a terrible idea? Firing all of the safety inspectors. Although they didn't go that far, Koch Industries, the parent company of Stainmaster Carpets, Lycra, Brawny paper towels, and Dixie cups, took a radical approach. Koch's philosophy is that employees have much more knowledge dispersed among them than any small group of corporate planners or safety inspectors can have. Therefore, rather than having a few safety engineers scour the company for unsafe conditions, Koch gave this responsibility to all of their employees, with rewards both for uncovering unsafe conditions and for discovering new ways to conduct business more safely. This approach resulted in 35 to 50 percent improvements each year in the number and severity of accidents across Koch Industries. Within one year the company had moved from being in the middle of the pack to having one of the best safety records in its industries.

And let's close with a silly one. Picture a community with a dog poop problem because owners fail to pick up after their pets. Other cities typically hand out steep fines for this infraction. But the solution to this problem in Brunete, Spain was a little more, well, disgusting. A crazy idea came from the advertising agency McCann Erickson: Have volunteers scoop up and mail the dog poop back to the owners in a "lost and found" box. Although it sounds ridiculous, it resulted in a 70 percent reduction in droppings.

So, the next time you have a problem you want solved, don't always ask for the best solution. Sometimes it can be useful to ask, "What's the worst, silliest, or most disgusting solution?" And then find a way of making it work.