When wrong solutions are the right answer.

I’m entering my second decade working as a software designer, and in the last couple of years, I’ve begun teaching user experience design part time. I’m finishing up my third group of students this month.

Why teach? For one, it’s a way to give back, and encourage others to potentially find a career that’s both fun and rewarding. Additionally, (by passing on hard learned lessons) I may help burgeoning designers avoid the same pitfalls I encountered. This will free them up to fall unwittingly into their own new ones. Failing is part of the gig. We all just do our best to try and avoid failing the same way twice. I also pick up a bit of extra spending money teaching, which is never a thing. But, if I’m honest, those factors are not what drive me most.

After years in any field, one becomes expert, but with that, can also become complacent. It’s easy to stop questioning many things, because you “know” them now. Regularly introducing people to a subject you think you know makes you realize where holes in that knowledge are, and force you to repeatedly hone the fundamentals of your craft.

One of those nuggets of wisdom that I let lapse from practice, but was reminded of through teaching, is the value of bad . By that, I don’t mean mistakes, inaccuracies, or minor stumbles. I mean deliberately terrible ideas. Ridiculously flawed and misguided anti-solutions.

Bad Idea Party

A bad idea party is a kind of rapid ideation session. It’s a variation on the commonly used 6 ups or crazy 8s exercises; where cross functional team members individually come up with several ideas on a theme (6 or 8 respectively) by sketching each one on a portion of a single sheet of paper. It’s done in a set amount of time — usually 5 minutes, forcing participants to come up with a bunch of ideas quickly. You can’t over think, or get into too much detail. At best, you can get enough concepts out to fill each square on the page.

How to Throw a Bad Idea Party

Gather a team working on a problem. This can work for almost any size group, but is most effective with typical scrum team sizes (6 to 10). Too few people, and you don’t get enough variety of ideas. Too many people, and logistics become a problem. (Tip: For large groups, try breaking into smaller teams)

  • Start with a clear problem statement, such as an intended user outcome, or How Might We question, to focus ideation on.
  • Everyone gets 5 minutes to come up with with 6 bad solutions to the problem — the crazier and more outlandish the better.
  • Each person has a maximum of 2 minutes to describe their 6 bad ideas to the group.

As with all ideation activities, brainstorming rules apply. It’s a judgement free activity. When people are presenting, listen and be inspired — don’t criticize.

One person’s bad ideas for delivering groceries.

Why Host a Bad Idea Party?

As mentioned earlier, design is about failing. No one’s first idea is ever their best. The creative process thrives on transparency, feedback, and iteration. We learn from mistakes and improve. Effective designers are able to guide teams to be the most creative force they can be.

Mantra’s like fail fast, fail often, and you only learn from your mistakes are ubiquitous in the creative profession. They’re meant to encourage innovation, but they don’t change the fact that human’s instinctively want to avoid the feeling of failure. No one likes getting it wrong. It conjures emotions like inadequacy, embarrassment, and disappointment.

By explicitly asking people to come up with the worst ideas they can think of, getting it wrong is getting it right. Everyone is forced to fail — the bigger the better. This positive reinforcement helps to short circuit our natural aversion to failure.

Along with that, coming up with wildly awful ideas requires you to step back and consider all sorts of possibilities you ordinary might not, when looking for the “right” solution. By definition, this gets people outside the box of simply solving the problem. It’s a warmup exercise for the creative centers.

Lastly, sometimes great inspiration can blossom from bad ideas. From Velcro, to potato chips, even a designer’s most beloved tool — post-it notes; these innovations (and many more) came from building on what looked to be flops.

By lowering barriers to failure, encouraging big picture thinking, and opening minds to see opportunities in mistakes, we can amplify the creative energy and output of any team.

When to Have a Bad Idea Party?

A bad idea party is a warmup exercise. It helps fire up the creative process, and get a team in the right frame of mind for innovative thinking. As a result, it’s something you can run at the start of any creative exercise.

Next time you’re working with a group to brainstorm potential solutions to a wicked problem, start by spending a few minutes to get it terribly wrong first. You may find those wrong solutions lead to the right answers.

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