A good way to start a brainstorm is to deliberately look for wrong answers. Set the challenge and then ask people to think of crazy ideas which are just plain wrong. Then take some of the more outrageous wrong ideas and kick them around. People will be outside their comfort zone and they will approach the original challenge from a new perspective. Each crazy notion can be provocative and stimulating. What is more, each wrong answer is itself the right answer to a different question. Sometimes these different questions are more interesting than the original challenge.
Consider these examples:
- Christopher Columbus set out to answer the question, ‘Can we sail west around the world to reach India?’ He got the wrong answer but found America.
- Trevor Bayliss (pictured) invented the clockwork radio. It was the wrong answer to the question, ‘How can we make a better radio for our customers?’ It was the right answer for the question, ‘How can we make an ideal radio for poor people in the developing world?’
- Art Fry at 3M got the wrong answer to the question, ‘How can we make a glue that sticks better?’ He got the right answer by suggesting that his invention could be used in Post-it notes.
- Pfizer Corporation had a new drug on trial with men. It was designed to reduce blood pressure but Viagra proved to be the wrong answer for that question. It became a remarkable success as the right answer for a different question.
- In the 1970s Sony Corporation under its chairman Akio Morita had a strong position in the cassette recorder business. They wanted to design new and better models. They started with two wrong ideas – a cassette recorder that could not record and one that had no speakers. Both were heretical notions for designers of cassette recorders but they resulted in the Sony Walkman. It was a personal music player which used tiny headphones. It could play music but not record it. It was major innovation and a huge commercial success.
When you look for the right answer you will often come up with bland and predictable ideas. So break with convention. Start by looking for the wrong answer and see where that leads.
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, both published by Kogan-Page.