The more surprisingly bad a new idea seems, the more likely it is that it will be useful, if only because the very fact that it seems as bad as it does is for some reason surprising

As an example, this article, which is based upon what seems to a really bad idea, namely that some kinds of bad ideas might actually be useful, might actually be useful, which is itself a bit of a surprise.

The very fact that there might be even a single example of any kind of bad idea (which was surprisingly bad or not) that might be at least even a bit useful is itself a bit of a surprise.

Well, this article might turn out to be proof of the validity of the claim in its own title if it were possible to show how it might be useful, because that title would be an example of a surprisingly bad idea which your startup really needs, because it is useful.

To be able to do this, it looks like we would need to eliminate the possibility that the surprisingly bad ideas were actually good ideas that were initially being mistaken for good ideas.

However, the fact that the ideas were actually good and only seemed bad might have had something to do with the element of surprise that they represented.

But what if you actually tried to deliberately come up with a bad startup idea?

Paul Graham says ‘make something people want’ if you want to start a startup,

So if you were looking for bad ideas, why not come up with something people don’t want.

Too easy?

That’s right, it’s too easy because although coming up with ideas about making something people don’t want is obviously a way of coming up with lots of bad ideas (and it’s been tried before) the problem with those ideas is that they tend to be things people obviously wouldn’t want.

Ideas for things people obviously wouldn’t want almost certainly have something in common.

They are almost certainly obviously bad ideas, rather than surprisingly bad ones.

Yes, such bad ideas might just possibly inspire you to come up with ideas for things people would actually want, merely as a result of triggering what psychologists call ‘free association’, where one idea somehow sparks another and it turns out this ‘ideation process’ as it is called is pretty agnostic when it comes to whether the ideas it generates are good or bad.

The trick is to make an effort to ‘catch’ these fleeting ideas as they pop up in your mind and immediately ask yourself whether they might be good or bad, in terms of representing anything anyone might actually want.

However, people (like me) who find it surprisingly effortless to instantly come up with new ideas, can often find themselves (also like me) going for distressingly long periods without coming up with a single interesting new idea simply because for some reason the bad ideas that end up floating around us all the time all seem to be too obviously bad to trigger the kind of inspired free association that opens up the possibility of turning bad ideas into good ones.

The only antidote to this annoying ‘ideator’s block’ is to not just wait until you accidentally happen upon a bad idea that just happens to get your ideational juices flowing (yes, I know, sometimes good ideas can do exactly the same thing, but we’re talking exclusively about bad ideas here) but to isolate some reliable characteristic that makes a genuinely bad idea (about what someone might want) inspiring enough to spawn a good idea.

Surprisingness turns out to be a really strong candidate for the thing that makes a bad idea inspirational in this context.

Here’s a way of inserting ‘surprise’ into the ‘come up with ideas for things people wouldn’t want’ idea.

“Make something that you might expect people to want, but that they wouldn’t actually use”.

That particular idea definitely sounds like an example of a bad idea, but not a surprisingly bad one.

Unfortunately, as Paul Graham would tell you, as much as that sounds like an obviously bad idea, it’s exactly the kind of bad idea that unsurprisingly inspires but ultimately dooms most startups (because they don’t try to find out whether anyone will use it until it is too late, an epiphany which Lean Startup devotees will tell you about in great detail).

The magic word in the sentence describing that idea is ‘expect’.

Surprises are all about ‘the unexpected’.

Let’s turn it on its head:

“Come up with an idea for something that you might not expect people to want, but that it turns out that they would actually use”.

Sounds a bit more like the holy grail than a surprisingly bad idea, right?

Nonetheless, look at the contrast with the ‘come up with something people don’t want’ way of generating bad ideas.

“Come up with an idea for something that you might not expect people to want, but…” is all about ‘contradicting expectations’, which, after all, is exactly what ‘surprisingness’ is all about.

Now those kinds of ideas (ideas which contradict expectations) are the kind of ideas which, bad or not, are much more likely to be the stuff of inspiring free association.

And if the ideas that you get from doing that do turn out to be bad ideas, well, they are probably surprisingly bad, maybe because for some reason they seem to offer just a forlorn glimmer of hope that someone might just want them and that hope will tempt you to follow that glimmer as you taxi gently along a dimly lit track of follow-up ideas which might turn out to help you towards your startup’s take-off with a genuinely scalable startup idea.

Alternatively, that very same track of ideas could leave you hurtling past the end of the metaphorical startup runway into a not-so-metaphorical crash which burns up all of your funds (a point at which ideas which at some point looked good can definitively prove themselves to have been surprisingly bad).

So, although it’s pretty obvious that surprisingly bad ideas are not all useful, there is something surprisingly useful about surprisingly bad ideas: they open up the whole question of expectations.

Nerdy startup types are usually no good at anticipating the expectations of real social humans with a ‘life’, so for this next exercise you might want to go and find yourself a less-nerdy co-founder.

Have another go at coming up with bad ideas for things people want, but this time why not start to deconstruct the expectations that sit behind why you think people actually wouldn’t want them.

See if you can come up with ideas for things that others would think people wouldn’t want, but where you have well-thought out reasons for thinking that they would be absolutely wrong about that for some surprisingly unexpected reasons.

Harder, isn’t it?

If you can’t do it, or at least if trying to do it doesn’t help you get to grips with expectations enough to actually come up with some better ideas, then maybe the whole idea about you starting a startup was a bad idea, which might turn out to be a real surprise, which would be a useful, if painful discovery, but one which might just stop you wasting a lot of time and money and prove the validity of the title of this article.