Recognizing ideas made to stick vs. ideas made to stink

As a bookend to my other post this week on who doesn’t belong in the brainstorm room, your mission isn’t done when you have a collection of people who could generate great ideas. You also need to be able to recognize a great idea. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that this is easy nor would I suggest every idea I ever had was great. But I can say that by now, I’ve found there are a certain factors at play that help enhance the chances of building a better idea as well as factors that almost doom ideas from the start.

So let’s talk how to better understand what it is when it’s an idea made to stick and an idea made to stink.

Idea made to stick:
It’s got a whole lot of brother-and-sister concepts in a giant concept family. 

In another agency life, a truly great former (and sometimes current) mentor of mine would have me pump out one concept after another to hang on the wall of his office. The ideas would begin to pile up until what was under the wall faded. It became concept wallpaper. And that was a very good thing. If he only had one idea to look at at the end of the day, I imagine John wouldn’t have been too pleased at all. But because he pushed us to deliver higher quantity in order to discover and unearth those nuggets of higher quality, our collective work as a team was considerable. I’m still proud of that work today.

Idea made to stink:
The “let’s throw it against the wall and see what they say” idea. 

Sometimes really talented people on paper don’t have the stamina to push themselves beyond something they’re satisfied with. Or they fall in love with their own idea and put the brakes on any more thinking. “Can we just show them this and see what they say?” No. We can’t. Because deep down, you’re not sold on this idea. It’s good but you know it isn’t great. But you don’t want to push for great and that’s too bad. Great involves digging deeper beyond what was easy to come up with. As a college professor once told me about generating better ideas beyond the first ones, “You never worked so hard to tell them something so simple.” You have one or two ideas that you think are good? Maybe they are. Now let’s see more. A lot more. The concept that high quantity and high quality can’t live on the same page is a total bunch of BS. You show me a high quantity of ideas and I’ll bet there are some winners I get pumped about in that mix.

Idea made to stick:
You feel nervous about it. And that’s a good thing.

There’s something about it that gives you at least a little twinge of nervousness – perhaps not on the level of drinking Maalox, but it definitely feels less certain than something that feels safe and comfortable. Why? Because if you’re going to present an idea that someone feels no emotion for, it’s probably a fairly lousy idea. Wait – let me get this straight – you want people to buy into your goods or services with an emotional response but you don’t expect the person in the room approving the work to have an emotional response? Of course you do. Some people aren’t comfortable presenting the one idea that makes them the most nervous by itself and surround it with others that might be “safer.” I understand that thinking because nobody wants to be shot down and have nothing left in reserves. But maybe, just maybe, that idea that makes you nervous yet excitable can be the first one out of the bag to be presented – and if the response is so good, the others might not even need to come out. Personally, I go one step further. My opinion is if I’m rooting against one of my ideas to not be chosen because it doesn’t get me as excited, I shouldn’t be presenting it in the first place.

Idea made to stink:
Crafted primarily for the person approving the work instead of the person buying the end product or service.
You do a preliminary presentation to someone underneath the top person approving the work, because they requested it. They see the idea, their eyes get big and they say, “I just know Carl doesn’t like the font Lucida Grande or feminine colors or shots of people smiling directly into the camera, so we can’t have ideas that involve that.”

Oh boy. Ideas that are created for Carl instead of the 300,000 people buying Carl’s product are not starting off on the right foot. Look, I get politics. I really do. I get that certain things have to be sold persuasively and at times delicately to those approving parties. But I have found in my experience this is where audience research can be solid ammo. It’s not smoke-and-mirrors to get your way. It’s factual stuff that shows you’ve done your homework on the customer. “We know the new brand we’re talking about appears more feminine in design than where we’ve been in the past but our research shows that 86% of our audience are young women between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, so it makes sense to ween ourselves away from those dark greens and greys.”

Think farther than the person putting the rubber stamp of approval on the idea. Their opinion matters, of course. But even beyond any ego involved, most marketers would have to reasonably agree that their customer’s opinion matters even more.

How else can you give your ideas a better chance of rising to the top as an idea made to stick? Try reading The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy by Tom Monahan. A former agency owner who has crafted many a great idea, I’ve heard this gentleman speak on creative idea generation and his “100mph” way of thinking might be of great benefit for your next brainstorm.

The 3 People Who Never Belong In A Brainstorm Room

“OK, everybody. Come on into the brainstorm room/conference room and let’s talk about (Insert Initiative Here). We’re going to need to generate some ideas.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s take that a step back. As it turns out, the process of cultivating ideas isn’t for everybody. It’s not an automatic right based on title. I think what we forget about brainstorms is that we’re so focused on getting to the quality of the idea that we forget that in getting there, there needs to be quantity (this is a separate post in itself). The minute you brainstorm, you’re turning on a faucet at one speed: Fast. When you have these 3 types of people in the room, you’ll slow the pace to a trickle, if not shut it off completely. Let’s meet them, shall we?

Negative Nancy
“No, that’s not going to work.”
“No, they won’t like it because they don’t like the color blue.”
“No, we tried something like that before and they didn’t like it.”

The problem with Negative Nancy is that her presence is like tossing a grenade into the room. Her motivation for saying “no” is in all likelihood the fact that she has no or very few original ideas of her own but she wants to appear relevant to others. It’s not about her title, it’s about a deeper issue. “No” is her insecurity talking. It’s not that she isn’t necessarily a valuable employee, it’s just that brainstorming isn’t her forte. So all you’re doing by having her in the room is inviting the rejection of ideas like Dwight Howard swatting away a basketball. Ideas? Not in your house. Negative Nancy will not only shut down the idea presented but the ensuing effect of her presence will be to shut down a steady stream of ideas.

The “we tried that before” is a particular feature of this person I take issue with because there are many variables that may have worked poorly before that can be corrected now. Maybe it wasn’t the right time or place before. Maybe the idea before didn’t have the right audience to accept it. Maybe the idea before just wasn’t that creative compared to its better looking sibling idea now.

Overthinking Oscar
“Well, if we were to do that, how exactly would that work?”
That’s not important right now. Really. You’re putting the brakes on a phase that is geared to be purely conceptual. And when you do that, the brainstorming process goes from 120 mph to 20 mph and declining fast. It’s amazing how quickly the wind changes in the room. Dwelling on the “how’s it going to actually work” is important at a later point. When? When the brainstorm is pretty much over and you have a collection of concepts, scribbles, ideas, seeds, etc. to study more closely for deeper evaluation.

“Me First” Mel
“Well, I can’t relate to that idea in my own life so it must not be relevant.”
Mel probably isn’t trying to appear this self-centered, he just doesn’t know how to step outside of his own skin to identify what the true audience is facing in their lives. It’s not about YOU. The chances of someone in the brainstorming room actually matching the profile of the audience you’re trying to target is rare. So if you’re a 40-something female in middle management who lives in the western suburbs of Chicago who drives a Mercedes, you need to have more of an open mind if your audience is a 20-something who graduated a couple years ago, unmarried and lives in L.A. The behaviors, tastes and preferences are not going to be the same. And even if you are, no offense, but you’re just one person.

“Oh, horse crud. I think I’m one of these 3 people. Should I not be brainstorming?”
Not yet and don’t despair. There’s an easy way to right the ship. It just requires some self-discipline on your part. When someone comes up with an idea, let it get out there without immediate judgment. Yes, the idea may be stupid, but everyone has them. Stupid ideas can be great springboards to better ideas. You don’t know what small seed of something good may lie within that thought. And if it’s truly that awful, trust the judgment of others in the room to let it pass like a ship in the night. Remember, you still have the phase after the brainstorming is over to reserve judgment on ideas – just not right there in the moment. If you can train yourself to think positively and concentrate on keeping the flow of concepts going without shutting them down, overthinking or asking yourself What Would I Do, I think you’ll be on the path to being a valuable asset that others will enjoy inviting into the brainstorm room every time.

Final thought – if the person who meets one of these criteria above is a manager that you can’t tell to sit it out, all is not lost. What I like to do in these situations is have a designated person announce some brief ground rules (“no bad ideas”) of no more than 2 minutes long EVERY time you brainstorm just to reinforce what should and shouldn’t be said. You’ll better your chances of ensuring the faucet of ideas flows mightily rather than trickles to a few drips.