Business as Usual: Yes, Virginia, There are Bad Ideas

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By: Helene Cavalli, guest blogger

Many meetings begin with the pronouncement, “There are no bad ideas.” The intent is to help everyone feel comfortable to share ideas freely.

Without getting into semantics about the use of “good” and “bad”, I don’t believe it’s incorrect to state unequivocally that there are bad ideas.  Truly, there are a lot of bad ideas.  The question is, Why isn’t it OK to say so?  What are we afraid of?  Can’t we admit that sometimes we might sound stupid?

In case you’re not quite convinced that some ideas are just plain bad, consider…

Austrian astronomer Joseph von Littrow purportedly wanted to fill a circular trench in the Sahara Desert with kerosene and ignite it as a means to communicate with aliens.  Dangerously bad.

Princess Beatrice’s hat.  Enough said.  Dreadfully bad.

Earlier this year a Canadian tourist was arrested for giving a Nazi salute outside German parliament.  This can land you in jail for up to six months.

Offensively bad.

The Internet kiss has introduced a new use for plastic. Just because you can do something weird with straws doesn’t mean you should. Revoltingly bad.

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Now, this isn’t to say that having bad ideas is bad.  In fact, bad ideas are an important part of innovation.  How would we recognize a truly good idea if we didn’t have any bad ideas to compare it to?

Dominic Orr, President and CEO of Aruba Networks, talks about his leadership style in a recent interview with Adam Bryant in The New York Times.  When it comes to mistakes and stupid ideas, he tells his staff, “… they need to accept that they can be, and will be, momentarily stupid. If they can accept that and be able to say, ‘Oh, I was momentarily stupid; let’s move on,’ then you don’t waste time dealing with that.”

Orr goes on to talk about “intellectual honesty”.

He states, “You try to be intellectually honest with yourself, meaning that you have to forget about all the face-saving issues and so on. I tell people that if you work for me, you have to have a thick skin because there’s no time to posture.”

There are those who are so scrupulously afraid of doing wrong that they seldom venture to do anything. – Vauvenargues

Many people fear making a mistake, sharing an idea that maybe won’t fly, or taking a risk and failing.  Fear of ridicule, embarrassment or loss of credibility have gotten in the way of many good ideas.

Consider some of the good ideas for those who persisted…

New York Milliner Satya Twena’s couture hats are truly stunning works of art.

Joseph von Littrow developed the only conformal retroazimuthal map projection, important for navigation, astronomy and mapping. A crater on the moon was also named in his honor.

Plastics have improved healthcare, responsible for the development of new prosthetic devices that are more comfortable, flexible and life-like.

No one achieves much success by playing it safe, sitting on the sidelines. Great successes are always accompanied by great failures.

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So consider letting go of the ego and offering up your idea. Be the first to speak instead of waiting for everyone else to weigh in.

Offer your feedback, impression or assessment.  Success requires taking risks, putting yourself on the line.

As Seth Godin put it, you have to be “almost always hanging way out of the boat, about to fall out”.


Helene Cavalli is a marketing professional for a management consulting firm. She studied Liberal Arts and wanted to be a sociologist. Helene loves foreign films, living in Philadelphia and taking her dog to the park. Follow Helene on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn .

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