Weighing in on good and bad ideas

May 1, 2013
We have all heard the expression that there is no such thing as a bad idea. When we are in the process of brainstorming for new ideas or solutions to old problems, we wish to ...


We have all heard the expression that there is no such thing as a bad idea. When we are in the process of brainstorming for new ideas or solutions to old problems, we wish to limit or eliminate boundaries, and let any and everything flow.

The traditional brainstorming philosophy that it is better if more ideas can be generated than what "is needed." Something will surely work when we produce volumes of ideas.

Yet, some argue that there are, indeed, some bad ideas. Of course, there are bad ideas. If we skipped the sterilization process because the autoclave is being repaired, cross contaminating our patients with potentially infectious diseases, it would be a bad idea. If we chose to not maintain continuing education and professional portfolios, it would be a bad idea. Spending many thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment without follow-up training is yet another bad idea.

Business leaders have recognized for decades, though, that in order to have successful brainstorming sessions to produce good ideas, they need to create a culture of not being judgmental. To criticize, ridicule, or ignore contributors will shut contributors down. No one wants to look foolish to peers or management. Alex Osborn, who is considered to be the founder of brainstorming, warns us of the perils of allowing negative feedback to flourish in the midst of a session. If people are shot down, they will learn to internalize any fresh ideas, perhaps the idea that is the next breakthrough. This unsafe atmosphere stifles creativity and nips innovation in the bud, and the freewheeling momentum grinds to a halt. It is prudent to allow a bad idea to survive if only for a short time. Primarily, we want to encourage participants to be fluent and energetic in delivering ideas.

People are passionate about their belief that there are bad ideas, often saying that brainstorming is a waste of time, energy, and money. There is heavy debate about this resounding within every business community. So what is the answer? Is brainstorming a good or bad idea?

Clearly, some ideas are harmful to us, to others, and to organizations. It makes no sense to follow through on these ideas. But it does make sense to weigh them, to look at them, to scrutinize them to see if they are worthy of being debated, discussed, and potentially developed. Often, goods ideas originate from bad ideas.

One example of how a bad idea can be transformed into a good idea can be seen with a patient suffering from chronic halitosis. The patient recognizes the problem and drowns his condition in alcohol-laden mouthwashes. Long term and frequent use of alcohol mouthwashes are a bad idea, causing drying of the oral mucosa and never addressing the root cause of the patient's halitosis. This bad idea can be turned into a good idea with brainstorming to find the root cause. Is the patient dieting and producing a smelly breath? Is he under stress? Does he suffer from a dry mouth? Does his oral hygiene need improvement? Does he need a referral to a specialist to determine the underlying problem, perhaps a gastrointestinal issue?

The good idea comes when the patient modifies and changes his diet and, through experimentation, is able to remedy his halitosis in a noninvasive way. This approach creates a healthier lifestyle as well as a more engaged, energetic, and healthy patient.

Perhaps the dental practice is heated with natural gas. It is clearly a bad idea to stay in the building if there is a leak in the gas line. Yet, from this bad idea, an innovative emergency plan could be developed, or, if you are in a high rise, the evacuation plan can be improved.

Or, maybe another idea will be to house personal parachutes at high levels and engage in team extreme sport parachuting. Maybe gas masks can be made available and a no-smoking policy within the external perimeter of the building can be implemented. Perhaps a software program is installed allowing for instant communication throughout the tower, so that the news of an emergency travels fast. The possibilities are endless and can all be born from a "bad idea."

The generation of ideas should be a process that should be a free-flowing, spontaneous exercise. The four steps to an effective brainstorming session are:

  1. Begin the brainstorming session with warm-up brain exercises to loosen your traditional way of thinking. Demonstrate "different thinking" and play with divergent thinking to reinforce that all ideas can be looked at.
  2. Next, have each individual work alone to generate ideas. By spending some time at the beginning of the brainstorming session generating ideas individually, participants will recognize that they have the freedom to be as "wild and crazy" as they wish.
  3. Ask participants for their best idea before opening the floor to random input of everyone's ideas. This process will spark inclusion and lead to collaboration and building on each other's ideas.
  4. Practice divergent thinking as a group before zooming in on convergent ideas to deliver a possible solution.

It takes courage to offer up radical, extreme, or new ideas and yet a successful brainstorming session will be open to the unusual. Although the proposed solutionmay not be feasible or even practical, it may trigger a brilliant line of thought that leads to breakthrough.

We have all seen that sometimes what looks like a bad idea turns out to be a great idea. Recognize that absurd ideas can be transformed into usable ideas. Experts regularly engage others in thinking processes that are counterintuitive or 360-degree thinking. This invitation to produce the worst, craziest, and impractical ideas can trigger the creative right brain to see new solutions and have ah-ha moments.

We don't want to shoot ideas down without looking at them and measuring the practicality, probability, and possibility. What was impossible in the past is reality today and what is a wild idea today may come into fruition in the future. We need to allow space for our imaginations to work.

However, having said that, there is a time that we need to stop and judge if the idea is a good idea or if it is a bad idea. This is where we evaluate if the idea is doable, if the timing is correct, if you have the resources, or if it is simply a crazy idea. You need to weigh the pros and cons: what would work, what won't work, and critique the idea with a solid, dispassionate viewpoint. Be watchful that your detachment to the idea isn't limiting you from seeing it for what it is.

Learning to work through the creative process by understanding that we need to suspend judgment in the idea generation stages, to encourage individual free flow first and then sharing, expanding and building on other's offerings will ensure a multitude of ideas. Guard that you stay fresh and energized in right brain thinking. Look at recognized bad ideas, if only for a little while before trashing them. It might just reveal the next big breakthrough. Exercise your mind in all of your brainstorming sessions to develop the habit of "thinking differently."

Now, doesn't that sound like a good idea? RDH

DOROTHY GARLOUGH, RDH, MPA, is no stranger to "different thinking." She is a creative consultant who has been both a business owner of a successful photography business and a clinical dental hygienist. She understands the need for innovation and creative thinking vs. reproductive thinking in the workplace. Dorothy drives this message through her business, Innovation Advancement (www.innovationadvancement.com) Today, she leads teams towards engagement in both dental offices and business, helping empower people to unleash their potential and achieve success!

Sir, we need for you to take the breathalyzer, please

An example of how a crazy idea might become a new product is my idea of a breathalyzer for periodontal patients. All dental practices have noncompliant periodontal patients. Patients suffer from chronic periodontal disease but are not buying into the need for preventive dental health on the recommended three-month periodontal appointment schedule.

Multiple providers have tried educating these patients, but to no avail. No one is reaching him. He believes that it is a sham and a money-making tactic of the dental practice. He has no reference point of disease-causing bacteria in his mouth that reach a critical mass, and thus begin destruction of the supporting tissues of the teeth.

In the future, there could be a technological tool for him to breath into, alerting him to that critical mass point, most likely before three months have passed.

Does this sound crazy?

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