I was listening to Giselle Aldridge and Paul Merrill on the Reflection as a Service podcast one morning this week as I walked to work. They were talking about ideas in entrepreneurship, assessing their value, when and how and with who they should be discussed, and how to protect them when you do open them up to others’ scrutiny.

I was thinking, while listening, that as an entrepreneur you need to be able to filter the ideas in front of you, seeking to find one that has a prospect of returning sufficiently well on an investment. Sometimes, you’ll have none that fit the bill and so, in some sense, they are bad ideas (for you, at that time, for the opportunity you had in mind, at least). In that situation one approach is to junk what you have and look for new ideas.  But an alternative is to make a bad idea better.

I was speculating, as I was thinking, and listening, that there might be heuristics for turning those bad ideas into good ideas. So I went looking, and I found an interesting piece by Alan Dix, a lecturer at Birmingham University, titled Silly Ideas:

Thinking about bad ideas is part brainstorming, but more important about learning to think about any idea, new good ideas you have yourself, other people’s existing ideas and products.

Dix suggests that deliberately (stating that you are) starting with bad ideas is itself a useful heuristic. You are naturally less attached to bad ideas; they can provoke you into trains of thought that you might not otherwise have encountered; you will have more confidence that you can improve them; they will likely generate more questions and challenge your assumptions.

He gives a set of questions for interrogating an idea, something like a SWOT analysis:

  • what is good about it? in what contexts? why?
  • what is bad about it? in what contexts? why?
  • in what contexts it is optimal?
  • how would you sell it? how would you defend it?

For me, a key aspect of this analysis is the focus on context. An idea is not necessarily unequivocally good or bad. Aspects of it might be good, or bad, or better or worse, in different scenarios, for different purposes. Dix invites you to discover in which it might be which and for which. To draw another parallel, this feels akin to factoring.

Armed with data about the idea, you can now look to change it in ways that keep the good and lose the bad, and maybe change the context or manner in which it’s used. Or throw it away completely and use the learnings you have from the domain to make a fresh start with a new idea.

The new idea I like best here is that of starting from a point that you assert is bad. I’ve encountered similar suggestions before: that functional fixedness can be reduced by starting a familiar process from an unfamiliar situation, that in brainstorming you shouldn’t reject ideas as you come up with them, and that of not evaluating until you have options in the rule of three.

I enjoy ideas simply for the sake of having them. I am fascinated by the way in which ideas spawn ideas and by the way that connections are made between them. I celebrate the fact that multiple perspectives on the same idea can differ enormously. I particularly like exploring the ambiguity that can result from those perspectives at work, where the task is often to tease out and then squeeze out ambiguity, or for fun, making up corny puns. And corny puns are never a bad idea.
Image: ITV News