Feeling Stuck? Try Brainstorming Terrible Ideas

We recently led a series of breakout sessions at an annual conference. The conference was put on by a fast-growing bakery franchise. In attendance were bakery owners and corporate support staff. During the breakout sessions we taught the bakery owners how to use the SCAN Framework (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) to tackle challenging problems.

Most people using SCAN have an intuitive grasp of the structures, the context, and the needs influencing their situation. Assumptions are harder to access. Shared beliefs and mindsets form our operating systems, but like a computer’s operating system, most of us don’t know what it’s doing or how it works until something goes wrong or it’s time for a big change.

The company’s bakeries are known for their unique, high-quality, hand-crafted cakes. They think about the purpose of their business as bringing joy. They promote their cakes as the centerpiece of celebrations. They have a cult-like following of people who rave about experiencing their first bite of cake.

To help the bakery owners become more aware of their assumptions, I asked them to react to a terrible idea. I suggested that they box up their most popular recipes in cake-mix form and put them on grocery store shelves next to the Betty Crocker cake mixes. Lucky for me, I prepared them to be offended by the idea. When I asked them to explain what makes the idea terrible, we started to hear more about their assumptions:

  • People count on us for a consistent, fresh-baked product.
  • Our guests love the variety of choices we offer.
  • Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake. You can’t do it at home.
  • Visiting our bakeries is a joyful experience and essential to our brand.

The purpose of the exercise is not to abandon assumptions. The purpose is to become more aware of our assumptions. When you’re aware of your assumptions, you can have more productive discussions about controversial ideas. Controversial ideas are provocative precisely because they challenge our assumptions. Adopting a provocative idea often means letting go of something predictable and comforting.

Anticipate Change-Resistance

In our experience, organizations don’t suffer from a lack good ideas. In organizational settings, good ideas face two common obstacles. First, the best ideas may never get in front of the people with the authority to enact them. Secondly, new ideas rarely survive their first encounter with the status quo. Assumptions and mindsets protect the status quo.

Becoming aware of shared organizational assumptions will help you anticipate the change-management implications of adopting a provocative idea. For example, to support the growth of the bakery company, there will inevitably be pressure to streamline operations. At some point, an idea to increase efficiency will bump up against the assumption: Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake.

How to use a Terrible Idea to Uncover Hidden Assumptions

Let’s say you feel stuck. The ideas you have look great on paper and you’ve been given the green light to implement them. And yet, you repeatedly experience setbacks as you try to turn your ideas into meaningful change.

  1. Set aside the good ideas and bring together a team.
  2. invite them to brainstorm terrible ideas. Ideas that are guaranteed to produce a visceral, negative reaction from your stakeholders. By the way, your team will find it liberating and fun to produce a list of dangerous ideas.
  3. Rank the ideas to find the best of the worst. When prioritizing the list of ideas, the most useful, terrible ideas will be the ones that are plausible, but feel unsettling. For example, imagine recommending to the senior team of Disney’s Theme Parks that they open a Disney casino in Las Vegas. Useful terrible ideas will take the organization in a new direction, not just offer a bad change to an existing way of doing business. For example, suggesting that McDonald’s become a wireless network operator is a more useful terrible idea than suggesting that McDonald’s serve their food on fine China.
  4. Finally, facilitate a discussion about why the most terrible ideas evoke an emotional reaction.

Once you clarify the hidden assumptions that seem to create a gravitational field that holds things in place, you’ll have a better understanding of why your new ideas won’t take. You may also uncover some ancient assumptions that are somehow still in play, but no longer feel relevant.

How Do We Get Started? versus Where Do We Go?

Consider your immediate reaction to two different ways of describing the activity of setting direction:

  • Defining a strategy
  • Choosing a way forward

If each of the above activities defined the purpose of two different meetings, which one would you rather attend?

To me, defining a strategy raises the stakes; it suggests that we seek an answer. Choosing a way forward acknowledges that there are many ways to go and our task is to pick one. A way forward can be abandoned in favor of another path without much fuss. An abandoned strategy feels like a failure.

As someone who has studied strategic thinking and facilitated my share of strategic planning exercises with organizational leaders, I want to go public with a recent heretical conclusion I’ve come to: Strategies are worthless.

To be clear, I’m not saying that formulating a strategy is a waste of time. Thinking together with other stakeholders whether on behalf of defining a strategy or as an exercise in taking stock helps build commitment and ownership. The mistake is presuming that the product describing the group’s conclusions matters as much or more than the process of reaching the conclusion. As Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Strategies in my experience suffer from a mythology that the daily activities of managers must conform to a set of strategic do’s and don’ts as if strategies were commandments rather than choices. At best, strategies inform investments of time and money. However, once the investment decisions have been made the organizational system and the marketplace react. Suddenly, the assumptions under which we defined our strategy no longer pertain. You can plan your next few moves in a game of Chess, but if your opponent responds in an unpredictable way, your strategy becomes useless. In today’s business environment unpredictable conditions are the only thing we can be sure of.

Essentially, strategies are marketing statements that most often put a positive spin on what you are already doing. Organizations don’t pause like an army before a battle waiting for a plan of attack. Everyday choices are being made that lead to outcomes that hopefully lead to better options. Your best bet is to develop a strategic question that will orient and focus the activities of the organization. A question that will inform what leaders pay attention to when making decisions and assessing outcomes.

Organizations and teams need a shared set of working hypotheses from which to choose a way forward; they don’t need (and almost never defer to) a strategy. Finding a way forward depends on asking thought-provoking questions before you get stuck. Here are four questions based on the Unstuck Minds Compass that can be applied in the flow of work rather than at some fictional starting point.

What is changing?

To ask, “What is changing?” is to zoom out and conduct Contextual Inquiry. In traditional strategic thinking terms, investigating what is changing is similar to conducting an environmental scan. Contextual Inquiry focuses the environmental scan on emerging trends and potential disruptions. By asking about contextual changes, we force ourselves to evaluate our assumptions. An adaptive organization does not wait for the strategy offsite to consider whether an emerging technology makes its product obsolete.

What do we take with us and what do we leave behind?

In light of what you discover about what is changing, use Critical Inquiry to zoom in and assess what will continue to work and what can be suspended. Consider what aspects of the current situation people find satisfying. Now consider the subset of the satisfying activities that contribute to your future customers’ future needs. Let go of the rest. 

Whose needs should we organize around?

In conjunction with Critical Inquiry, use Collaborative Inquiry to clearly define who benefits from what your organization produces and specifically how they benefit. Given what is changing, who are your future customers, clients or communities and what will be different about their needs in the future?

What question will define our path forward?

Note what is changing and compare it to what you’re currently doing and for whom. Now use Creative Inquiry to find the question that will reorient the organization’s attention.

By the way, if members of your organization, your board or your investors still insist on a clear statement of your strategy, you can always do what most organizations do. Retrospectively review what has worked so far and declare that you will do more of it and even better.