How To Turn Bad Ideas Into Good Ideas

There are a lot of bad ideas out there. Truthfully, looking back over my career, I estimate that easily 50% of my ideas have been terrible, 30% OK, 15% pretty good, and 5% stellar. But here’s the rub – to have good ideas, you need to have a lot of ideas – and plenty of those will simply be bad. So what can you do with a bad idea to turn it around? One word:

Keep asking “Why?”

First – it forces you to re-think your reasoning, and second, it forces you to look closer at the idea itself.

Sometimes, it only takes a minor tweak to turn a bad idea into a good one. So stop tossing bad ideas away without thinking, and play with them a little. In a brainstorming session or creative meeting, don’t be a jerk or make anyone defensive, but keep asking “why?” Even with your boss, push back a bit with the question.

“Why” is a powerful word that has transformed many mediocre ideas into excellent ones.

Jonathan Taplin, Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC put it this way in a recent issue of Fast Company:

Let’s say you’re running an ad company and a big brand executive comes in and says, “We need to have a presence on Facebook.”
You would say, “Why?”
And the guy would say, “Because all of our competitors are on Facebook.”
And you’d say, “Why?”
Because they want to position themselves as forward looking and youthful.
Because they want to make more money with young people.
Now, we’re getting somewhere.

Start asking why, and start amping up the quality of your ideas.

How about you? Has “why?” been a good idea word for you?

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  1. When writing stories, I’d say 90 per cent of my ideas are rubbish. And just because I have a good idea doesn’t mean there isn’t an even better idea that just needs a little more brainstorming to reach. It is vitally important to keep rigorously asking the question “How could this be better?” As a result I have LOADS of discarded scenarios or variations on scenes/chapters/characters etc, but I hope the really great ones are those that actually made the final edit.

  2. This is definitely something I’ve got to work at. I struggle with asking why as I don’t want to sound dumb. My wife, on the other hand, is amazing with her questions and her whys.

  3. “Why” is a fair question. With the right intention it is not disrespectful. Watch Simon Stenk on He explains “at the center is why.” Also, in the Lean discipline of manufacturing one is encouraged to ask the “5 whys” to get to the real root of the matter. Sometimes “because I said so” is not the right answer…

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