Sometimes bad ideas can be incredibly useful

When the brainstorm groups in the Belgium study were given bad ideas, they came up with better ideas than they would have otherwise—together or alone.

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Mark Tigan, civil servant of the village of Winooski, Vermont, was thirty-two years old when the president of the United States called to shut him down.

This was 1979. Tigan was a bit of a wunderkind in the field of small-town city planning. He was currently responsible for leading Winooski’s staff of city planners to try to boost its struggling economy.


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With a population of seven thousand, Winooski was a blip on the map, overshadowed by its neighbor, Burlington. Its downtown district, next to a handful of abandoned mills and factories, was crumbling. And it was cold—temperatures regularly reached twenty below.

The world outside was facing an industrial crisis of its own. Iran was in the middle of a revolution, causing, among other things, global oil prices to double. The cost to heat Winooski had risen to $4 million a year—$14.2 million in 2018 dollars.

Burlington had just put in a request for government funds to build a hydroelectric plant along the river to help reduce its own heating bill and subsequently leave Winooski’s creek bed dry. With already high unemployment and declining commerce, Winooski’s downtown would be ruined.

Amid this turmoil, Tigan took his staff out for a drink and a chat about how his city planning office could help their struggling town. After a few drinks and complaints about the temperature, Tigan came up with the bad idea of a lifetime.

“What if we built a dome over the city?”

Everyone was tipsy by then. They all thought it was a good plan. It could save oil costs and lower heating expenses.

A week later, Tigan stopped in Baltimore on his way to Washington, DC. There he told his dome idea to a buddy who worked as a liaison between Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “You know . . . ,” his friend said. “The assistant secretary, Bob Embry, loves domes.” Dome houses had become briefly popular during the ’60s and ’70s for their energy efficiency and structural integrity. By this time, however, dome fever had faded, except among a few diehards like Embry.

Tigan replaced his friend in a carpool with Embry and two other HUD people to Washington the next day and pitched Assistant Secretary Embry his idea to build the dome.

Surprisingly, Embry said he’d fund it. Tigan delivered the news to his flabbergasted staff. They eagerly put together a report and proposal.

The dome story blew up. The day after the Burlington newspaper wrote about that council meeting, three television trucks showed up to Winooski City Hall. National newspapers followed. Eventually, an International Dome Symposium was scheduled in Winooski.

The Vermonters had few answers for the inevitable questions. They made up specifics on the fly. Nobody had built a dome this big before. Nobody knew what it would be made out of. But, it soon became clear that building and maintaining a dome large enough to fit Winooski, engineered to keep the heat in and not kill everyone, would probably cost a lot more than the heating bill savings it would generate and ruin the view.

Then, some observers in the Middle East started to panic about how America was putting cities under domes in order to stick it to the oil industry. HUD assistant secretary Embry’s phone rang.

“What the hell are you doing?”

It was President Carter. He was running a tough election campaign against Ronald Reagan. International ridicule about the federal government paying millions to cover towns in Vermont with domes was not helping. The conversation, according to Tigan, ended with a presidential order: “You’ve got to pull this.”

Cognitive diversity—diversity of ideas and viewpoints—can be powerful and is often what we need to get a team thinking critically. But the Winooski Dome story is a reminder of an important reality: some“different” ideas, frankly, are quite bad.

Any perspective—even one that might seem crazy—has the potential to be useful under the right circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that it will be. How can a team or its leaders discern when it should seriously consider a different way of thinking, and when it’s a waste of time?

The perspective of a young activist who’d had a few drinks was unfortunately not one that could help cold old Winooski with its heat trouble and battle over its river. Thirty-two-year-old eco-warrior Mark Tigan’s cognitive diversity was just a little too far-out to be of any use.

Or was it?

A series of research studies from the University of Leuven in Belgium points us toward an answer. The Belgian researchers organized several group brainstorming sessions where eight participants were put in rooms together and asked to write down, discuss, and sketch out good ideas for either mobile phone games or for a mobile payment app. Then came the twist. In the different sessions, the researchers added various “inspirational material” to get things going. Sometimes the inspiration was straightforward, like an idea for a prepaid credit card to use with the app. Other times, the researchers showed the group bad ideas. One was a bracelet that physically injures you if you spend too much money on the mobile app.

Other times, the researchers included wacky characters in the group exercise, like a washed-up actor named Patrik who had been abandoned by his wife and kids, leaving him with a lazy, incontinent dog.

Surprisingly, when the brainstorm groups in the Belgium study were given bad ideas like the injury bracelet, or crazy “collaborators” like Patrik, they came up with better ideas than they would have otherwise—together or alone.

The bad ideas helped point them toward ideas that they wouldn’t have considered before. This is the lesson, it turns out, all those news trucks would have learned if they had stuck around Winooski a little bit longer.

The last thing the world heard about Winooski after President Carter ordered the kibosh on Mark Tigan’s dome…was nothing. But that dome that was never built helped save Winooski.

Embry told Tigan he couldn’t give them funding for the dome. But he knew about Burlington’s proposal to build a hydroelectric plant on the river and wanted to give federal funding to Winooski to build a hydro plant on a different part of the river that could power the area without ruining Winooski’s downtown.

The enthusiasm around the dome—inventors and politicians flying in to talk about it—had ignited the town and its supporters, key among them Embry. Soon, ideas that had before gone unconsidered were not so easily dismissed anymore.

They built the hydroelectric plant, which helped Winooski save on its heating costs without ruining downtown or causing a war with Burlington. They used some of the HUD funding to convert the old factories into energy-efficient office spaces that helped attract local businesses to the town.

Even though the dome was a rather extreme—we might even say awful—idea, it ended up being useful after all. Sometimes bad ideas can be useful, if anything, because a bad idea can be very good at pointing us in a new direction. The scientific term for this is “error-allowing heuristics.” The idea, as Dr. Scott Page of the University of Michigan explains, is that “sometimes, a new solution of lower value can point the way to a better solution.”

This is important enough to say twice. Sometimes a solution of lower value can point the way to a better solution.

To see how, let’s return to the Belgian researchers’ bad ideas. Another key reason the Belgian studies with Patrik worked so well has to do with breaking organizational silence. Often we have ideas that we consciously or subconsciously suppress because they fall outside what our group might deem normal. The brainstorm exercises that inject bad ideas, in a nutshell, increase the odds that we’ll break our silence with an idea that would normally feel unsafe to express, because someone has already expressed something even more far out.

There’s a subtlety to this idea that’s also important. The Winooski dome didn’t force anyone’s hand. Instead, it was when someone willingly paid attention to a seemingly crazy idea that new possibilities opened up and progress was made.

We might call this phenomenon “cognitive expansion.” In essence, cognitive expansion happens when we add cognitively diverse people to our team and pay attention to them. And it turns out that the more divergent our perspectives, the more potentially interesting ideas will come up.

By definition, it’s a willingness to explore things that might not be useful. But curiosity is considered a virtue because this act of exploration is often useful regardless.

Similar research by Dr. Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that even if a minority perspective happens to be wrong, it can still help the group find better ideas. The key? The group must be willing to pay attention. Considering such a radical idea opened Winooski and its supporters (like HUD) up to considering more workable solutions to its problems that might not have happened otherwise, causing unemployment in Winooski to decrease from 15 percent to 7 percent.

Seemingly bad ideas like the Winooski Dome aren’t always going to end up pointing us toward useful things. But Malevich and Tigan show us just how important it is for us to seriously consider perspectives outside our norm. That’s how regular teams become Dream Teams.

This article first appeared on Linkedin

 


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