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Building Braver Buts
Issue #35 of The Two But Rule
Hi friends! We have two more weeks until the post-Labor Day announcement I promised last week. In anticipation of that, take a half-second to weigh in on the poll at the end of today’s issue.
This week, here’s an excerpt from the upcoming book, The Two But Rule
Bad Ideas Are A Good Idea
It’s hard to get teams feeling safe about having bad ideas — and especially about telling each other about how their ideas are not good…yet. But we know now that failure to embrace those buts is a good way to fail altogether.
If you want people to get out of their comfort zones, it’s important to set expectations and ground rules clearly. Unfortunately, simply saying, “There are no bad ideas,” is a really bad idea. We’re going to need to get creative, if we want people to take the risk of being creative.
And that’s just what researchers from Lancaster University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did in a study they described in a paper called Why Bad Ideas Are A Good Idea. In the study, they observed participants attempting to solve the following problem:
You have 9 balls. One of these balls weighs fractionally more than the others, though you cannot tell just by holding them. You are allowed only TWO weightings using a balance scale. How can you find the heavier ball?
Typically a participant started by weighing four balls on each side of the scale, which is not the best approach. (The ideal starting point, it turns out, is three on each side.) But some started with clearly unbalanced configurations, like weighing one ball against eight. Surprisingly, these participants solved the puzzle over twenty percent more often than those who started with a more sensible choice.
The researchers suggest that starting with a clearly “bad” idea somehow perturbs the participant’s exploration of the problem and avoids traps that appear rational. It’s a good example of Momentum Thinking. Starting with a dumb idea isn’t just ok. It might provide advantages, as long as it prompts iterative critical thinking.
Steps To A Good “Bad Idea”
If you want to try this for yourself, the researchers suggest the following methodology when brainstorming:
Step 1: Ask participants to suggest a deliberately “bad” idea, like constructing a “glass hammer” or an “inflatable dart board”.
Step 2: Ask, a) What’s bad about the idea? b) Why is this a bad thing? c) Is there anything that shares this feature that is not bad? d) If so, what’s the difference? e) Is there a different context where this would be good?
Step 3: Turn the bad idea into a good one without ‘fixing’ the thing that makes it bad. For example, an inflatable dart board with blunt darts, both covered in velcro material, turned out to be a product idea during one Bad Ideas session at the Dublin Institute of Technology. The important thing is to get people taking risks and implicitly setting a context where doing so is not only allowed but seen as fun.
Having Fun Is Essential
There is an art to this, and you need to be working with people who know how to have fun. When the researchers tried to apply the Bad Ideas approach with teenagers, the students tended toward literal interpretations. For example, they couldn’t get past the fact that a “chocolate greenhouse” would melt. They couldn’t produce a 2But. It suggests that applying the Two But Rule is a learned skill that requires some amount of maturity.
You need teams that can consider two or more opposing ideas at the same time and either resolve them or at least tolerate their simultaneous existence. This is what you see in outstanding creative teams.
As I mentioned, in couple weeks, there will be some exciting announcements from 2Buts.com, and it’s also a moment where it’s worth rethinking the regular delivery days for new issues.