Leaders are constantly asking employees for big ideas — “the more disruptive, the better!” — and they’re often disappointed when their brainstorm sessions don’t yield groundbreakers. After years of working with organizations like HBO, Starwood, and Google, I strongly believe that taming a wild idea—not improving a mediocre one—is what actually leads to innovation.
Recent studies suggest that the first part of a brainstorm merely recycles existing ideas; the middle portion yields incremental ideas; and the final block of time is where the breakthroughs happen. Unfortunately, most brainstorms stall before the third stage. We’re too focused on judging other people’s ideas — or pre-judging our own.
To improve your odds of coming up with a groundbreaking idea — and impressing the leader in the room — ask yourself “what ideas would get me fired?” This simple perspective shift gives your brain permission to stretch its thinking and imagine truly disruptive ideas.
When I open a session with the “what ideas would get you fired” question, people look surprised. Then they ask for clarification. I challenge the room to think about the kinds of ideas that would give their CEO a panic attack. Ideas that clients would love but would never expect you to actually do. Ideas that are outrageous in theory but transformative in action. When I’m working with a company in a regulated industry like pharma, I remind them to think within legal parameters, but otherwise, no boundaries are given.
The whiteboard is initially filled with predictable things like “no dress code” or “three hours for lunch” and “Martini Mondays.” But once these are aired, the next wave of thinking is far more creative than anything prompted by “give me a big idea.”
For example, “start a business that competes with us” is an idea that could certainly get you fired. But in the context of this exercise, it can start a valuable conversation about crisis aversion. A competing venture would likely exploit your company’s biggest weakness, opening up discussion about what can be done now to transform flaws into strengths.
Among the thousands of ideas that have come out of my “what ideas would get you fired” sessions, the seven below illustrate the kind of disruptive thinking that leads to innovation…and career advancement.
- Since business model X could render us irrelevant, we should do Y to avoid this scenario.
- What would happen if we stopped taking X for granted in our industry?
- Our lack of X is our constant excuse for failure, but the real problem is Y.
- Sell Product X for half the price.
- Give away Service Y for free.
- The one acquisition that would most impact our business is X but we haven’t considered it because of Y.
- What if we changed the one thing customers hate most about Product/Service X?
People who offer unexpected ideas stand out from the crowd and are more likely to be promoted — not fired. By taking a provocative approach to idea generation, you’ll start training your mind to recognize and challenge norms about your business and industry. With some practice, the “meh” ideas that your brain defaults to will be replaced by actual disruptors.