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Brainstorming: Are All Ideas Welcome? Why You Shouldn't Discount Ideas Before They're Explored

Why I consider all ideas—not just the "good" ones—and how it improves my work

When you brainstorm or explore ideas, do you consider only the reasonable ideas, or do you also consider the ones that are crazy or clearly bad?

A recent social faux pas caused me to gain some insight into the perhaps unique manner in which I process information. In short, I presented a bad suggestion to a group of intellectual friends, and it was poorly received. My idea wasn’t necessarily intended as a serious suggestion—yet neither was it a joke. It was simply exploratory.

Brainstorming for boundaries and insight

When I brainstorm, I like to present all my ideas—even the crazy ones—and then analyze exactly what makes them defective. When discussing abortion, for example, I might suggest that if abortion is murder, then perhaps we should blow up the murderous abortion-providing facilities. Bad idea? Yes. Enlightening to explore? Also yes.

I don't necessarily agree with every idea I present. I enjoy this kind of exploration because it shows me where the boundary conditions are. It turns out that blowing up facilities is a bad idea—why? Because the legal consequences would be severe. Modern insurance policies would mean the target of the attack isn’t who suffers the financial loss. Perhaps most importantly, it would damage the public opinion battle, which seems to be the more important arena. These are all tactical considerations; so this course of action may be consistent with the underlying principles, but still be ill-advised.

What did we learn from exploring that "bad" idea? That public opinion and moral high ground are paramount. It’s better long-term to keep the moral high ground and shape public opinion through speech.

Once I've explored the edges through brainstorming, I can come up with good solutions, which are sometimes unorthodox or counterintuitive. If I don't explore, I miss insights and possible solutions.

So, continuing with the example: Now that I’ve explored the boundaries and can recognize the marks of a counterproductive idea like a trained immune system, I can focus on the core problem: How can we shape public opinion? Is there an unorthodox way to get media attention and still look like the victim? Then I start the process again by brainstorming all the ways to get media attention.

Exploring edge cases in software

I think my brainstorming strategy explains, in part, why I do so well professionally with software engineering and strategic thinking. I can see how things fit together and make them robust because I'm always thinking about edge cases, boundaries, and all the possible ways to break things. There’s a joke along these lines about a quality assurance (QA) tester who tests software for bugs:

A QA tester walker into a bar:

He orders a beer.
He orders 3 beers.
He orders 2976412836 beers.
He orders 0 beers.
He orders -1 beer.
He orders nothing.
Él ordena una cerveza.
He orders a deer.
He tries to leave without paying.
He starts ordering a beer, then throws himself through the window halfway through.
He orders a beer, gets his receipt, then tries to go back.
He orders a beer, goes to the door of the bar, throws a handful of cookies into the street, then goes back to the bar to see if the barmaid still recognizes him.
He orders a beer, and watches very carefully while the barmaid puts his order into the till to make sure nothing in his request got lost along the way.
He starts ordering a beer, and tries to talk the barmaid into handing over her personal details.
He orders a beer, sneaks into the back, and turns off power to the till, and waits to see how the barmaid reacts, and what she says to him.
He orders a beer while calling in thousands of robots to order a beer at exactly the same time.

In the software world, this kind of thinking is invaluable for writing code that doesn’t break the first time something unexpected happens. It's also invaluable for understanding how various parts and modules actually fit together.

If I’m going to make a change to my code, I need to know whether the change will affect the behavior of the program when talking to other code modules, and if any possible interactions would be affected by my change. I excel at this thinking. I can see how abstract parts fit together in a way that most people cannot. In part, I believe, due to my habit of examining things from every angle and trying to deeply understand the principles before diving in to solve the problem or build the system.

Arguing for ideas

I also use this kind of exploration when discussing ideas with people with whom I disagree, or when I’m playing devil’s advocate. It’s an effective way to dig down past the surface issue into the underlying principles, testing for firmness and consistency.

For example, a man may say that we are to be stewards of God’s creation and care for the Earth, and also say that there ought to be no environmental regulation whatsoever. Or he may may that we should not legislate morality, and also that theft should be illegal because it’s wrong. Such contradictory positions are quite common. But can you hold both positions and be consistent on your principles? Or is it just unexamined emotional decision making?

My habits in brainstorming and examining ideas are not always beneficial. Sometimes there are negative social implications, as not everyone understands what I’m doing or finds the exercise as enjoyable as I do. When I pursue the boundaries of ideas in the wrong context, I can accidentally cause offence, frustration, or loss of the good opinions of others.

As in all things, I must endeavor to know myself, know how I think, and know the social context in which I’m operating at any given moment. But if there’s a silver lining to a social faux pas of this nature, it’s that I can take the opportunity for reflection and learn more about myself, hopefully finding some new insight to guide future behavior.

Credit for this post's header image: Tobias "ToMar" Maier / CC BY-SA 3.0

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

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