Why you should encourage bad ideas in your organization

6 min readMar 17, 2017


One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is idea generation, especially related to how large companies innovate. I bet more than half the articles I’ve saved in Pocket are in some way related to bringing great ideas to life in this world (the other half are about Ponies… just kidding… the other half are about really technical topics, I am still a geek at heart).

So I was really thrilled when I stumbled across this great talk by Steve Portigal “The Power of Bad Ideas” on MindTheProduct.com. One of the many great parts of the talk is that he explains, using real world examples, how some bad ideas turn out to be loved by people (and become successful in the market)… Breaking Bad, as an example.

The Power of Bad Ideas — Steve Portigal

The passage from the Rolling Stone article is:

But he (Vince Gilligan) still can’t believe that anyone bought the idea for Breaking Bad in the first place. “A show about a middle-aged man dying of cancer, cooking crystal meth — I keep thinking about The Producers, and Springtime for Hitler. In hindsight I don’t know if you could come up with a worse idea on paper for a TV show than Breaking Bad, unless you’re actually trying to fail.”.

I love that last line!

As I was watching this I couldn’t stop thinking about a great video I saw a few years back by Ben Horowitz from a16z on how large companies can innovate, specifically he was explaining some of the challenges… why they have a hard time innovating. And he starts with a wonderful explanation of the business that Venture Capitalists are actually in. The model that he describes was something that one of the partners at a16z, Chris Dixon, came up with up, and it’s truly insightful!

Ben says:

Contrary to what most people think, VCs aren’t in the business of looking for Good ideas. They are in the business of looking for Good Ideas that seem like Bad Ideas. That is not to say that Good Ideas that look like Good Ideas aren’t great to pursue…. There are things like longer battery life in a cell phone, faster relational databases, etc. they’re great things, they’re just not breakthrough innovations, they aren’t things that create new product cycles… because good ideas are obvious, everyone is chasing them. So that is not what we want to be chasing.

Counterintuitive, right?

Here is the diagram the depicts the Good Ideas / Bad Ideas concept:

The business that VC’s are really in, investing in Bad Ideas


One of my favorite “Bad Ideas” examples is when he talks about AirBnB:

Of course everyone now thinks it’s a good idea — of course, the sharing economy, it’s awesome! But you have to remember when Brian showed up as a kid, and you have to remember he was a kid, not that far out of college, he’s like, “here’s my idea: I’m going to get an air mattress and I’m going to blow it up and then rent it out” and I’ll tell you, that sounded like a bad idea at the time… have you considered who might want to actually take you up on that proposition Brian?

That “Bad Idea” is now valued at around $30B.

Ben goes on to explain that one of the ways that they figure out if that Bad Idea is actually a Good Idea is if the entrepreneur actually knows a secret, do they know something that no one else in the world knows, and have they learned it through some difficult technical process or life process. In the case of AirBnB, it was that Ben wanted to go to a design conference in San Francisco and he saw that all the hotels were sold out. There is obviously a bit more to it, but I’ll assume you’ll watch the video. :)

As a brief aside, one of the quotes that Ben shares in his video was from a Technology Review article written by Isaac Asimov (I’ve used this in way too many presentations that I’ve done!).

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

~ Isaac Asimov

Great, right?

Anyway, what Ben reveals about why innovation is so hard at big companies is because they are really, really good at killing “Bad” ideas. Like incredibly good. And, in the hierarchy of a large company, it gets even stronger than that because in the hierarchy of a large company you can get credit, you can increase your power in the organization, by being the person who killed that “bad idea”.

Coming up with a “Bad idea” is hard, dismissing it is free.

That might be obvious to others, but when I first heard him say it I was floored. Truly insightful!

At the end of his talk, one of the smart suggestions that Ben gives to have a more innovative company is to have a “person, process or culture that encourages innovative ideas”. Sounds easy, right? Oh, just put in place a person… or a process…. Or change your culture…. That’s great, but easier said than done!

Putting politics aside for a minute, I learned this really cool concept a few years ago called “The Overton Window of Political Possibilities”.

The Overton Window of Political Possibilities

Pictured above, the Overton Window is the creation of the late Joseph Overton of the Mackinac Center, a conservative Michigan think tank. It’s one explanation of why new ideas actually see the light of day. What Overton discovered was that only a percentage of a policy’s full spectrum is politically possible at any given time, and it’s really the politician’s constituents that frame what is possible (gross oversimplification).

From the Mackinac centers website:

Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success.

What on earth, you might be asking yourself, does this have to do with corporate innovation?

How far the window is “open”, and in what direction, frames the acceptable conversation within any given community (country, state, company, family, etc.). If an organization wants something more than incrementality, it needs to make it easy & acceptable to discover, voice, and incubate what some people might call “Bad Ideas”.

Going back to the video from Steve I mentioned earlier, he actually began his talk with a cool exercise that started with generating bad ideas, it was awesome (and there were some really smart people in the audience who participated)! This is perhaps the exact thing that Ben talks about in his video, where you need to create a culture that encourages these types of ideas.

This is when I start to think about the “Ideas are Scary” Commercial from GE, it so perfectly captured how unconventional / “bad” ideas are treated. BRILLIANT!


So, the question is, is your company one that would accept or shun the “creature” from the GE commercial?

NOTE: I just launched a little project called Thinking Sheets! It’s a toolkit designed to make you a better thinker. Check it out at ThinkingSheets.com




Founder, Certainty Studio. Product, Design, & Innovation