Reward bad ideas

It’s accepted that quantity leads to quality; that the good is buried somewhere within the deluge of the bad. This is, in part, why people shitpost. This is, in part, why frameworks like Eric Ries’ build-measure-learn cycle and the adage of “move fast and break things” gained traction; they increase the total throughput of action by limiting scope, accelerating delivery, and deploying structures to examine and integrate the results, good or bad. It’s also why creatives from every discipline advocate the accumulation of practice volume.

However, in the context of ideation within an organisation I’ve not seen any explicit effort to reward bad ideas. Good ideas are rewarded, if only indirectly and downstream of their conception. Consistent producers of good ideas tend to accumulate more competence, more status, more total compensation—perhaps even more happiness. (The preceding statement is based on something between intuition and anecdata.)

I don’t think it’s viable to reward bad ideas in a similar manner—downstream and indirectly—with the same benefits that accrue to consistent producers of good ideas. But I do think that bad ideas can be rewarded quickly, closer to the point of their inception. I’ll use the example of a product backlog, although the mechanic can probably transfer to other domains.

Imagine that an arbitrary value was paid to every member of an organisation that adds a unique bad idea to the relevant product backlog.

  • “Unique”: not a duplicate of an existing idea
  • “Bad”: a framing that inhibits any potential shame or embarrassment for an idea’s badness
  • “Idea”: a targeted description of a tangible change (e.g. not “insert unicorn for insert industry)

This incentive structure may seem ripe for abuse. It isn’t. Surprisingly—and I encourage you to try this for yourself—coming up with bad ideas is almost as hard as coming up with good ones. Key word there: “almost”.

Here’s a hierarchy. Up top, taking gold: good ideas. We want these. These are great. The stuff of legends as well as everyday, taken-for-granted competence. Next up, a close second: bad ideas. These are under appreciated, overlooked and unrewarded, even though they’re understood to be critical to the conception of the good ideas we love so much. Way down below, barely making it on the podium: no ideas. This is a barren wasteland associated with stagnation, decline, bitter in-fighting. Think of a now irrelevant, too-big-to-fail corporate behemoth surviving only due to its previously cancerous growth. Or engineers left over after the scourge of the Dead Sea effect.

Right now—from what I can see, anyway—we emphasise either the production of good ideas or no ideas.

Good ideas are, obviously, rewarded and prioritised, compensated and celebrated. Often, there are explicit structures we use and experiment with to trigger the creation of good ideas and to capture them. This is good. No complaint. However, it’s also a difficult thing to engineer, the coming of good ideas. For every organisation optimising for good ideas there’s many more content to persist in the absence of ideas. To make do with the status quo and avoid the creation of anything that might catalyse difference, however small, beyond that required to stay in the same place.

Structuring for the creation of good ideas is hard; orientating to ensure the absence of ideas is stupid; why not try the in-between? Optimise for bad ideas, and enjoy the good ones that come as a natural and inevitable consequence.