Why bad ideas lead to good ideas: using “reverse thinking” in a design sprint at the National Gallery of Art
Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views and opinions of the National Gallery of Art or the federal government.
Cans of spray paint next to the artworks. Glitter bombs in the galleries. Pony rides in the lobby. Free skateboards available at the Information Desk.
These were just a handful of the intentionally bad ideas that a team at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., generated during a “bad ideas brainstorm,” also known as a “wrong thinking” exercise, during a four-day design sprint. Bad ideas brainstorming is a method for generating novel solutions by pushing teams beyond the safe and status quo.
A cross-disciplinary group of museum staff, joined by collaborators from local institutions and community members, were gathered together to imagine and prototype new digital offerings that promote access to the Collection and build stronger connections between the Gallery and its visitors. The grant-funded project specifically called for the convening of an event that would foster play, creation, and innovation, using the Gallery and its collections as a springboard.
Design sprints are facilitated working sessions that involve exploring and validating concepts with end-users through research and prototyping. At Designing Insights, we ground our design sprints in the design thinking framework as it’s taught and applied at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of design, or d.school, and specialize in the application of design thinking to museums and cultural heritage organizations. Design thinking offers a method for cultivating responsive and engaging institutions and developing relevant and meaningful visitor experiences and programs.
Generating bad ideas using Crazy8s sketching
In most of the design sprints that we run, when we are in a “divergent” phase, we urge participants to go for quantity, not quality, and encourage them to come up with wild and crazy ideas. But this was the first time we had explicitly instructed sprinters to generate truly bad ideas. Really awful, embarrassing, egregious, outrageous, impermissible, even taboo, ideas.
And the results were phenomenal. We set aside eight minutes for the solo sketching activity known as Crazy 8s, and asked people to think of the worst ideas possible in response to “How Might We” questions they had already crafted. We then had team members take three minutes each to share their bad ideas with teammates. The howls of laughter (even some snorting) was contagious, and the room came alive.
After each person had a chance to share their bad ideas, we asked them to repeat the Crazy 8s activity, this time adapting, digging deeper, flipping, combining, or exploring the opposite of the bad ideas they had just come up with. (The smart folks over at Design Sprint Academy have a nice variation on how to run the activity; they call it Evil8s and details are here in a Medium post.)
Moving from bad to good
In ethnographic-style interviews with museum visitors, the team heard over and over that the majority of visitors did not consider themselves to be “art people.” Visitors apologized for not being “art people” and expressed a lack of confidence around the skills and personal experiences they brought with them when they walked through the doors.
In response to this, one of the “bad” ideas was to require all museum visitors to attend “mandatory” academic lectures about the museum and current exhibitions before they could come inside. Another related idea was to only allow entrance to visitors with PhDs. These ideas were recognized as exclusive and elitist— positively bad ideas.
But these bad ideas led to a new concept that the team is now exploring through prototyping: short, on-demand videos related to building skills and confidence around looking at art. Visitors can consume these videos in the atrium before heading into the galleries. These videos will provide short “crash courses” that will empower visitors, build their confidence, and validate that they are art people, no matter their background, training, or experience.
Another theme that the workshop participants heard in their interviews with visitors was that basic comfort is a big issue. Seating, way finding, location of restrooms and food are top-of-mind. In response to this, the team brainstormed ideas for how to make the museum more comfortable and welcoming. One of the “bad” ideas they generated was to require absolute silence in the museum. No conversations at all. A vow of silence upon entry.
This led to another idea: promoting and fostering conversations, and making them visible and tangible. The team prototyped a platform that invites visitors to share their thoughts, stories, emotions, and reflections with other visitors via a digital interface that is displayed in the atrium, and is now in the process of refining this prototype for a potential implementation.
Why do bad ideas lead to good ideas?
What is it about bad ideas that makes them useful tools for leading us to good ideas? How can imagining the worst way to solve a problem actually help us solve the problem?
1) It lowers the pressure
Anyone who has been in a traditional brainstorming meeting in which people are encouraged to “be creative” knows how painful it can be. Faced with a blank piece of paper and the pressure to turn on some “creative juices,” most people draw a big fat blank.
But by freeing the group from any pretenses of being creative or having “good” ideas, the self-editing and self-consciousness melts away. As one participant in the sprint at the National Gallery reflected, “Sometimes you just have to be bad before being OK.”
2) It establishes a level playing field
No matter your role or seniority in your organization, everyone is equally qualified to come up with bad ideas. You can’t get a degree in bad ideas (although some of my friends who spent many years in graduate school might argue otherwise …) and it does not matter if you are in a “creative” role in your organization; everyone has the same qualifications when it comes to the generation of bad ideas.
3) It builds trust in oneself and the team
One participant in the sprint reflected that the experience taught her the importance of “trusting your ideas—all of them.” Another shared: “I had a habit of being very hard on myself, but now I think it’s OK to have bad ideas.” It was as if being given this explicit permission to be “bad” built trust in her own innate capacity.
The experience also builds trust among team members. If everyone is deliberately generating “bad” ideas, no one has to worry about being judged by peers, as everyone is making oneself vulnerable.
4) It loosens up the room
The sheer joy that this activity brought to the room was palpable. The humor changed the energy, and connected colleagues to each other. As one participant noted, “How could laughter and a sense of humor not be good for everyone?”
5) It creates space for the good ideas
Starting with bad ideas opens up doors and possibilities. It clears the plate for good ideas. By putting the awful ideas out there, the group is able to adapt, flip, combine, or move on from the bad to the good.
If you’re trying hard to solve a problem and you’re finding yourself stuck, stop trying to come up with a good idea, and think of the absolute worst way to solve it.
“I used to think having bad ideas was bad,” reflected one of the participants in the four-day sprint. “Now I think they can be starting points for revolutionary thinking.”
Give yourself and your team the time and space to mindfully go for bad ideas. Then take the bad ideas and flip them, explore the opposite, adapt and combine ideas, or look for a kernel of a good inside the bad. Then see where it leads you. You might just end up with a revolution.
Birsel, Ayse. To Come Up with a Good Idea, Start by Imagining the Worst Idea Possible. Harvard Business Review. August 16, 2017. Accessed: July 23, 2019.
Dorf, Bob.How Looking at the Worst Possible Idea Could Lead You to the Best One. Inc. July 13, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2019.
Wilson, Chauncey. Method 4 of 100: Reverse Brainstorming. Designing the User Experience at Autodesk. January 20, 2011. Accessed: July 26, 2019.