About ten years ago, I was introduced to something called “The Bad Idea Game” by Danvers Fleury. We were doing a company strategy retreat. Fortunately we did not spend it all on wordcrafting mission and values statements, and we actually engaged in some good strategy.

The bad idea game was a fun exercise that didn’t seem to produce any directly useful results. At first I thought it had been a waste of a precious hour from our limited supply. Afterwards, however, I noticed that we were thinking more broadly and considering more creative options.

Since then, I have used the Bad Idea Game occasionally when it seems that groupthink has emerged or people have become circular in their thinking. It helps break out of those recursive loops.

It is a facilitated exercise that starts by posing a challenge.

“Instead of hitting the problem head-on, let’s go a different direction. For the next hour, we’re going to think of the worst, most value-destroying ideas we can. For example, instead of thinking about how to improve your company image you would think of ideas for absolutely demolishing your company image. Things like: put out a video of you murdering puppies on main street. We’re going to do this because sometimes we can find good ideas in the ‘shadow’ of bad ones by reversing them or combining their reversals. "

You’ll get some (nervous) laughter at first and people will need some prodding. Use your usual facilitation tricks and tools (having a plant in the audience always helps). After a couple of minutes to explain the silliness of the exercise, have people spend five or ten minutes writing ideas on sticky notes.

Put the notes up on the board and let people riff on them for a while.

Depending on the group and the psychological safety in the company it might be best to not write down the bad ideas.

Why is this a useful exercise? I think there are two ways this helps. One thing that doesn’t usually result is directly producing a good idea in that session.

First, as I mentioned before, it can break people out of their habits of thought. It engages some creative faculties.

The second, more subtle effect that I didn’t appreciate until later, is that framing things as bad ideas gives you license to start naming elephants. In any company there are some things you just don’t talk about. Sensitive areas. Political hot buttons. Toes on which you must not step. Deeply ingrained assumptions. And sometimes, those things are holding you back. Especially if those deeply held beliefs are the very things that made you successful so far. And doubly so if your company isn’t good at self-reflection and confronting its own sacred cows.

If you’re going to call the CEO’s baby ugly, it’s better to do in under the cover of a bad idea exercise than to come right out and say it.