Stupid Idea or Seeds of Brilliance?

Stupid Idea or Seeds of Brilliance? post image

The young leader came racing in my office, his “great idea” bursting from his heart. He had a plan and was ready to go. I listened to his enthusiastic outburst with mixed emotions. He had energy, passion, and commitment. Good start. But, it was a stupid idea.

My inside voice screamed…

  • No way
  • This idea will never work
  • I’ve seen this movie before (it doesn’t end well)
  • He hasn’t thought this through
  • He’s such a rookie
  • Bless his heart
  • ?

Then two more thoughts.

How do I challenge his thinking while sustaining his passion?


What if he’s right?

Stupid Ideas as Sparks

Given the choice of watering down passion, or needing to light a spark, I pick the over-energetic fire every time. Many stupid ideas work. Stupid ideas make people rich. Others don’t.


  • ignite possibility
  • scaffold from experience
  • ask important questions
  • inspire past stupid

Sustain the Passion, Question the Process

9 Steps for Supporting a Stupid Idea

  1. Acknowledge “wow” be impressed by the passion, committment and energy
  2. Listen with an open mind
  3. Ask lots of questions (tone matters here).
    – Why this? (start with genuine curiosity)
    – What’s the bigger issue?
    – Why is this approach best?
    – Who’s involved so far?
    – Who should be?
    – What resources are required?
    – What are the potential side effects?
  4. Be honest in your apprehension.. share your concerns from a loving place
  5. Clarify the vision, and brainstorm additional ways to get there
  6. Listen more
  7. Consider a pilot
  8. Allow time to think
  9. Set up time to meet again

What would you add?

Filed Under:   Communication
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

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What People Are Saying

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Karin, of all your posts this one echoes inside me greatly. I like so much your analytical approach. One day I have to co-author a presentation, an E-book or whatever with you. I know it is stupid idea from my part!!!! I like your stepwise and well-thought Steps to Support Stupid Ideas. I shall use them to convince you to co-author.

I wrote a presentation on the same subject and this presentation is dear to me. It is entitled “Stupidity Spawns Creativity”

Steve Borek   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Check out the book “The Power of Starting Something Stupid” by Richie Norton.

Give the team lots of rope. They learn and grow from the experience.

p.s. Last week of my 21 day plant based diet challenge. What will Steve eat on day 22?

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Steve, Thanks that sounds like a great read. Be careful what you eat on day 22… my friend had to go to the hospital from eating a steak after a vegan stint.

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Ali, Great slide show. My favorite line…”the idea may not be stupid, we make it look so.”

marcus hurt   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.” -– Charlie Chaplin, actor, producer, director, and studio founder, 1916

Not too many can see the future from the present.

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Marcus, great add! Thanks for sharing the quote and link.

Dallas Tye   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Finally, greetings from a like time zone (NYC)
I have been accused of having some stupid ideas. At times I’ve had leaders like Karin thankfully.

In one program I was delivering on innovation and continual improvement we used to pitch the new guys value propersition by saying he’s not going to be bound by your way of thinking,, he’ll ask some stupid questions. Listen to his questions and ideas,, you never know.

In one profile system we’d call this guy the ‘wild card’; thought t was Belbins team roles but can’t see it just now.

Joel Barker in his series, discovering he future, would say you need to break through your paradigms to see the world from a different angle.

These crazy idea guys and gals will help us do that.

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Dallas- I fully concur with your view. The future is not always an extrapolation of the present; more likely it is a disrupted version.

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |  

Dallas, Glad to see you made it to America safely. We do need more wild cards and crazy idea guys.

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |  

Dallas, Glad to see you made it to America safely. We do need more wild cards and crazy idea guys.

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Dallas, Glad to see you made it to America safely. We do need more wild cards and crazy idea guys.

Alma Escamilla   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

I’m so happy the word “Stupid” has become almost FUN! I don’t think I have a #10 suggestion for this great list. I do love #3 as it contains meaningful questions. Recently, I am careful to understand the value of a “GOOD” question. My ah-ha moment was within the “(tone matters here)”. Personally, I must remember in all my animation, “(facial expression matters here too)”. My ambition is to fuel the enthusiasm behind the idea. A good pilot can’t hurt, even if the only thing we accomplish is to spark the desire to bring more stupid ideas that may change the world because they worked! I loved this post and all the fun comments. Great day all from San Antonio Texas, smiling today!

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Alma, great and passionate comment. You said ” I must remember in all my animation, “(facial expression matters here too)”. I wonder if your were to animate me how would I look!

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Alma, I always love to hear your enthusiastic and energetic comments. Glad you’re smiling. I am too.

Matt McWilliams   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

I wrote about this somewhere before…what I had to learn was restraining my first response to what a perceived were stupid ideas.

It took a particularly “stupid” idea from one guy on our team that ended up being a huge catalyst to a complete redesign of our system for me to learn that.

My rules are:

-Never immediately shoot down an idea.
-Never shoot it down in public.
-Ask clarifying questions in a neutral tone.
-Yes, stroke their ego. Tell them it might have potential. Spend 3 whole minutes of team time exploring how that might work, etc.

Ali Anani (@alianani15)   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Great simple rules, Matt. I like them. Stroke their ego! What a lovely way to say it.

letsgrowleaders   |   17 June 2013   |   Reply

Matt, Great add… the not shooting it down in public is so important.

Sridhar Laxman   |   18 June 2013   |   Reply


Insightful post, addresses a key challenge across most organizations.To add to what you have wonderfully captured, I feel managers/leaders must resist the urge to critique each and every idea.

Replacing “Thats a great idea but… ” with “Thats a great idea and how do you think we can use it to meet our objectives’ can do wonders.
1. It ensure the person coming up with the idea still feels passionate about it
2. It nudges them to focus on the objectives and therefore continue to own, tailor it suitably
3. It shows the manager/leader as being supportive

Stephen Levy in his book ‘Accidental Genius’ states that coming up with 100 ideas is easier than to working on only one (the perfection trap). I think this is an important point for leaders to keep in mind and encourage.

letsgrowleaders   |   18 June 2013   |   Reply

Sridhar, Accidental Genius sounds great… haven’t read that one. You raise such an important point. I’ve had bosses like that. It’s sucks the life out of you.

chris bauman   |   18 June 2013   |   Reply

Karen ,
It is my feeling that you have covered this topic well. As a thought, something one of my mentors used to ask of me…
we would also set goal posts and things that needed to be researched prior to the next meeting. It is was also important that this research didn’t interfere with my existence work, so he would also recommend time constraints.

It is the old adage….1 in 10 ideas are brilliant. adding to this I feel that if managers embraced sparks of inspiration more, allowing extra time to mold an idea rather than dismissing it, then this ratio may become 2 in 10.
I really like this topic….thankyou for sharing it.