Leaders are constantly asking employees for big ideas—“the more disruptive, the better!”—and they’re surprised when a better mousetrap doesn’t come out of these brainstorms. Perhaps the big idea should involve dismissing this approach to the ideation process altogether.
Through a decade of working with hundreds of organizations around the world, my innovation-training firm has found that taming a wild idea—not improving a mediocre one—is what actually leads to innovation. Compelling research suggests that the first part of a brainstorm merely recycles existing ideas; the middle portion yields incremental ideas; and the final block of time is where the breakthroughs happen.
As we know all too well, brainstorms usually stall before the third stage. We’re too focused on judging other people’s ideas—and pre-judging our own. Inevitably, the uncomfortable silence wins out and we call it a day.
Improve your odds of getting actual groundbreakers by changing your typical prompt from “give me a big idea” to a more provocative challenge: “Give me an idea that would get you fired.” This shift gives people permission to stretch their thinking and unlock the ‘if only’ concepts that employees usually only dream about.
When I open a session with the “get you fired” question, participants look surprised. Then they ask for clarification. I challenge the room to think about the types of ideas that would give their CEO a panic attack. Ideas that clients would love but would never expect you to actually do. Ideas that are outrageous in theory but transformative in action. When I’m working with a company in a regulated industry, I remind them to think within legal parameters, but otherwise, no boundaries are given.
The whiteboard is initially filled with silly, predictable items like “drug trafficking” and “calling in sick every Monday.” But after these are mentioned, the next wave of thinking is far more creative than any resulting from “give me a big idea.”
For example, “start a business that competes with our current employer” is an idea that could certainly get you fired. But in the context of this exercise, it can start a valuable conversation about crisis aversion. A competing venture would likely exploit your company’s biggest weakness, opening up discussion about what can be done now to transform flaws into strengths.
Among the thousands of ideas that have come out of my “get you fired” sessions, the nine below illustrate the kind of disruptive thinking that leads to innovation. And with minor rephrasing, leaders can use each of them as effective prompts for future brainstorms.
- Sell Product X for half the price.
- Give away Service Y for free.
- The one acquisition that would most impact our business is X but we’ll never do it because of Y.
- Outsource portion X of our product/service.
- Offer our product at five times the cost by doing Y.
- Change the one thing customers hate most about Product/Service X.
- Stop taking Y for granted in our industry.
- Since business model X will most likely render us irrelevant, we should do Y to avoid this scenario.
- Our lack of X is always our excuse for failure, even though the real problem is Y.
Participants offering these kinds of ideas get noticed—not fired. And the leaders who evaluate and act on them are the agents of change who move innovation forward. By using effective brainstorming prompts—and ideas that get you fired—employees are granted permission to challenge conventions about your business, processes, and industry. Slowly but steadily, the routine ideas that once crowded your whiteboard will be replaced by true disruptors.
This article is authored by Lisa Bodell. Lisa Bodell is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and the CEO of futurethink, a global innovation training firm. Her workshops and culture-change book, “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution,” have transformed the way organizations like GE and Starwood approach innovation.