20% Project: The Bad Idea Factory

"Today your job is to come up with good ideas. And bad ideas. Really bad ideas."

This is how I framed the first 20% Project day in my English class where we create what I'm calling The Bad Idea Factory. The idea came from a workshop I attended while in Bahrain a couple years ago led by Ewan McIntosh. From his blog:
When you ask a room of professionals to come up with their “best” solutions to a problem you often tend to get great ideas, but not always the best ones. They can be contrived and almost always involve some self-censorship from the team: people don’t offer anything up unless they feel, explicitly or subconsciously, that it will get buy-in from the rest of the team or committee. 
Ask people for their “worst” solutions to a problem and people tend not to hold back at all – laughs are had and the terrible ideas flow. And while the initial suggestions might feel stupid, pointless or ridiculous to the originating team members, these awful ideas can take on a spectacular new lease of life in the hands of another, unrelated group.
So I gave my students a half-hour to work in small groups to come up with as many 20% Project ideas as they could. Great ideas are welcome, but so are the really bad ones. During this brainstorming phase of the project, no ideas were rejected. What did we get? Some really bad ideas including
  • Eat only Taco Bell for two weeks
  • Create a new language using only feet signals
  • Breed a new animal
  • Watch TV for 72 straight hours (and document the effects)
From these ideas came good ideas
  • Create a news show for our school
  • Write reviews of the 100 best movies from a teenager's perspective
  • Create a video that teaches evolution to children
  • Make a documentary about what it would be like to be blind for an entire day
  • Build a homemade foundry 
Then there were bad ideas that might actually be good ideas
  • Create a movie that shows grass growing
  • Contact someone who lives in North Korea
  • Experience what it's like to be homeless for one day and make a documentary about it
  • Watch TV for 72 straight hours (and document the effects)
Next week students are going to start forming their teams and committing to an idea that was inspired by the Bad Idea Factory. I'm expecting lots of good ones.


  1. This is most interesting. I found this as I have a business called The Idea Factory.
    Your idea is good as it prompts thinking in new directions.
    I can offer a similar concept when you are talking about planning something.
    Do you normal approach for planning -- in essence this is your 'to do' list for success. Step back and create a second plan...
    Your 'to fail' list -- what are the 3-4 things that could ruin your project fastest?
    What typically happens is that you will identify some key 'to fail' items. The point is if you avoid what makes you fail, you can succeed by default.
    I have worked with groups that end up putting an equal focus on both.
    ed bernacki

  2. Great idea, Ed. I'm going to use this as long as it doesn't create a fear of failure.

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