The more absurd ideas, the better

When do you come to brilliant insights? If employees are given the space to come up with absurd ideas, writes innovation expert Simone van Neerven. And it is up to leaders to create the right environment. The makers of South Park show how this is done.

South Park thrives on 'dumb' ideas

For many years, the animated television series South Park has been a huge hit. Maybe because they take a somewhat different approach to things. In contrast to other television shows, where episodes are often planned, produced, and broadcast over weeks or even months, South Park believed that everything could be completed in only six days.

That puts enormous pressure on the team. The documentary titled ‘6 Days to Air: The Production of South Park‘ portrays an almost palpable sense of frustration as the days pass and the team is still clueless about the new episode. The flow of absurd and stupid ideas begins. And then, just like that, it’s there. The idea that forms the foundation of a funny story. The race against time begins. The team starts to build on the idea and brings it to life. By the end of the week, the team succeeds again in creating a humorous and successful episode.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, say that their mission is to come up with ideas and jokes every day. But that seems a lot easier than it is. “For all the good ideas that we have, there are like a hundred not-so-good ones.” You have to have the courage to share what comes up in your mind and accept that people don’t like all your ideas that much. “It is weirdly vulnerable.”

That’s why they have the ‘writers’ room’ at South Park. A place where people feel safe to share whatever comes to mind while brainstorming. “The writers’ room is off limits.”

The best ideas usually take some time to bubble up

It turns out that the best, most original ideas frequently emerge only after all the obvious ones have been put on the table. This was investigated by Loran Nordgren and Brian Lucas, who had comedians provide captions for a cartoon. Those comedians who thought they had the finest jokes right away were more inclined to quit thinking of new ones. Compared to the comedians who took far longer to come up with jokes, they submitted fewer jokes that were also rated much lower on creativity and originality.

The law of large numbers

Researchers from Insead and The Wharton School challenged students in different groups to come up with ideas for new products. The teams were then judged on how innovative they were. The group that had more ideas ultimately came up with a better solution. A pretty logical conclusion, because the larger the selection of ideas, the greater the chance that there will be a brilliant one.

When it comes to innovation, you would rather have 24 terrible ideas and one great idea than 25 mediocre, just-not-so-good ideas — unlike industrial systems, for instance, where you want a constant output.

What is an absurd idea anyway?

The definition of absurd according to the dictionary is “completely ridiculous; not logical and sensible.” When we use the phrase ‘that’s an absurd idea’, we mean that the idea is illogical or ill-considered, and doesn’t make any sense. And there is the rub: this judgement is based on the current, known frame of reference.

However, innovation mostly comes from a fascination with the weirdness of how things are done, which often leads to surprising insights. Something we always take for granted is suddenly turned upside down. And if the change is too big, the idea is quickly dismissed as stupid or absurd.

Just think of the legendary TV clip from 1998, when Dutchman Frans Bromet questions people on the street about the mobile phone. Most of them look very surprised and answer that they don’t see why they would need it or say with a laugh, “You’re cycling and then you’ll get a call???”

The day before something is a real breakthrough, it is often a crazy idea

We are surrounded by inventions that were once considered absurd or unnecessary. Before 1927, there was no sound in any movie. When the first film with sound was released, the President of United Artists predicted that it would be a gimmick. In 2000, the Daily Mail headline read: ‘The Internet may be just a passing fad as millions give up on it’.

The bicycle, the automobile, the plane, our smartphone’s touchscreen, and 3D printing. These were all innovations that were dismissed as a temporary trend that would pass. But nowadays we don’t know any better. Thus, an idea’s level of absurdity might well be a prerequisite for its success.

Dare to be vulnerable

In many settings, it takes guts to voice your thoughts and ideas, let alone share a crazy or absurd idea. As Stone and Parker from South Park also said, you must have the courage to be vulnerable to present your colleagues or manager with a raw idea that still has many snags.

The team must understand that absurd ideas are often a stepping stone to something better because the best solutions are usually a combination of several ideas. So, one of the most crucial core qualities for a team to be innovative is learning to accept any suggestion that is presented.

And, as a manager, it is essential to create an environment where people dare to do this – such as the ‘writers’ room’ at South Park.

Bring it on

The essence is that an absurd idea can suddenly turn out to be brilliant and that more ideas eventually lead to better ideas. “You have to shoot, else you can’t score,” Johan Cruijff once said, preferably as often as possible.

And so, keep coming up with those absurd and crazy ideas. The more, the better.

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT.

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