The Value of Stupid Ideas

On a plane yesterday I was once again indulging my habit of reading random magazines that I pick up at airports while killing time waiting to board. This time equipped with the latest edition of New Scientist (4th November 2006), I stumbled on a fascinating article about Francis Crick, the man who discovered DNA. Apparently nothing like what we normally associate with the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype, Crick was neither eccentric, absent-minded or shy, quite the opposite: extrovert, loud and fond of pretty girls, Crick seemed to be doomed to remain the outsider in an otherwise quite insular scientific community.

Although a man so vividly etched in our minds, courtesy of countless science lessons at school, Crick only got going in his career as a scientist at the age of 31 when he finally gained a research studentship at Cambridge. Prior to this Crick had spent time working on anti-ship mines for the Admiralty and coasted his way through college earning himself a second-class degree in Physics. Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick, the first to appear since he died in 2004, gives an excellent and fast-paced account of a long, astonishing life: Crick could serve as exemplar for late starters and for those who refuse to quit.

What caught my eye in this very entertaining article was the attitude, behaviour and relationships that Crick nurtured through countless visits to the pub, where he claims his best ideas came to him and were developed through endless conversations, especially with a series of close intellectual partners. Among them were Jim Watson, Sydney Brenner and the young neuroscientist Christof Koch, with whom Crick worked for the last 18 years of his life. Special partner or not, the rules were always the same:

” There was no shame in floating a stupid idea, but no umbrage was to be taken if the other person said it was stupid”

To me I couldn’t put it down any better myself – the essence of creative thinking and the openness, frankness and boldness that one needs to display to truly boost creative sessions to the next levels. All too often people either sit and hold in their ideas, for fear of sharing them and others not acknowledging their contribution or even simply for the fear that a ‘stupid’ question or idea would somehow brand them as ‘thick’ for the rest of their lives. Thus far too often discussions end up contrived, or silence ensues and problems don’t get any closer to being solved because inadvertently everyone’s watching each other and taking cues from the collective reluctance rather than pushing the boat out and daring to speak out.

If there ever was a motto for brainstorms – it would have to be the above statement in my mind. Stupid ideas a great if expressed in an environment where people have the guts to say the idea is stupid and why, but moreover, dare to think about what would make the idea less stupid. For any good idea to emerge it will invariably take countless stupid ideas to get the debate going and if everyone can remain objective, refrain from any personal attacks or being spiteful or ironic, those stupid ideas are the blessing which lubricates minds and gets creative juices flowing and before long, behold the truly brilliant idea walk up on stage, take a bow and save the day!

A while ago I wrote about Running Creative Brainstorms, a collection of non-method methods if you like, things I have discovered are essential to the creative process and to getting some really productive brainstorms going. I would now, in retrospect, like to add the above statement to it too,  because in my mind it expresses so well the respect and appreciation we need to have for all our colleagues and team members that participate in a creative discussion – nothing shuts down minds and mouths sooner than a sense of not being valued, appreciated and respected in a team!

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