When Bad Ideas Are Good


The conversation is going nowhere. A team of gifted and effective leaders are at the table, but you can’t seem to get the discussion started and moving forward. Do they not care about the issue? Are they afraid to share their perspectives? Do they not know about the topic? The answer is likely “No” to all three, but the discussion is dead at the starting gate. What do you do?

Most of us would try to jumpstart the conversation by asking specific people targeted questions: Vanessa, when you were working with Project Hazelnut, how did communication with the marketing team impede or help the project team’s work? This may indeed help Vanessa to “bite” and get involved. The problem, though, is that you’ve just established filters (Vanessa’s perspective on a specific issue and project) that limit the conversation. Others at the table are naturally going to tune their thinking accordingly.

Another, usually better, approach, is to establish what is known and unknown about the issue, and to explore organizational impacts and drivers. This conversation will paint a picture of current reality, but it also limits creative and innovative thinking about the problem. More filters.

Jon Bell suggested another approach that may work better. To explain that, let’s imagine a common scenario first.

It’s lunch time. Your “lunch bunch” has gathered by the coat racks before heading out the door. You’re all waiting for Dave who is always the last to show up. Dave arrives. Then the daily routine begins. Tina says, “Where should we go today?” There’s a pause. Someone says, “I don’t care.” Someone else: “Yeah, it doesn’t matter to me.” But everyone is thinking We go through the same routine every day and we always end up at the same joint because no one can offer a better idea.

What if someone offered an idea that no one would like? “Let’s go to McDonald’s.” Everyone would immediately start to evaluate the pros and cons, while sorting priorities and goals.

  • It’s cheap, but my budget lets me spend a little more.
  • There’s no ambiance. Jack’s Sports Bar is much more fun.
  • It’s incredibly busy at lunch and the service is slow. La Cantina has quick lunch service.
  • It’s right around the corner; we could get there and back fast. Although, I’m not really in a hurry today.
  • I get indigestion after eating McDonald’s. I never have trouble with Rosa’s menu.
  • I could get an egg nog shake, but I had one last week with my kids.

The “bad” idea (McDonald’s) has just generated an evaluation and feedback cycle that helps everyone explore their own perceptions, values, and goals related to the problem. Real dialogue can begin.

(To be fair, I don’t really want to pick on McDonald’s. While no one will argue it’s the best food available, the sandwich in the photo above is one of my favorite snacks, a Bacon McDouble. Also, both of my sons are managers at the McDonald’s where I’m writing this post. I’m proud of the hard work they do every day earning money for college!)

Here’s the point: when your team is stuck and you can’t get a good dialogue going, give them a McDonald’s option. Give them a “bad” idea. Challenge the team to analyze why that bad idea would and would not work. With that, you have a set of criteria for evaluating other, more viable options.

You now have meaningful dialogue going.

Note: The technique presented in this article is based on Jon Bell’s article, “McDonald’s Theory,” which is accessible at https://medium.com/@ienjoy/mcdonalds-theory-9216e1c9da7d#.1werik9tb

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

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