Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 30;   July 28, 2010: Exploiting Failed Ideas

# Exploiting Failed Ideas

Last updated: December 26, 2018

When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.

Your team is stuck. The approach you were using has failed, or it can't possibly be finished in time — if ever. A solution is needed yesterday. So you assemble a small group to generate some new options. The most popular method in such situations is brainstorming, and for many of us, it's the only method we know. As good as it is, there are techniques we can use to make brainstorms even more productive. One method works by exploiting failed ideas.

By examining the ideas we've already tried or rejected, we can generate new ideas we might have missed otherwise. And we can do this within the familiar structure of a brainstorming session.

Here's an example. Suppose we have a blown out oil well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and it's gushing oil all over the ocean. Hey, it could happen. We want to collect all the spilled oil. We've tried burning it, dragging booms behind boats, and skimming it off the surface into supertankers, but nothing has worked.

So we ask, what's fundamentally wrong with these approaches? Actually, it's basic geometry. These methods are all point-oriented — the fire we light burns at a single point, the mouth of the boom loop we drag behind the boats is narrow, as is the prow of the supertanker skimmer. Compared to the surface of the Gulf, these are points, while the oil is spread unevenly over a big part of the ocean surface. To capture material spread over a surface, we need a surface-oriented approach, not a point-oriented approach.

A more effective method might involve tens or hundreds of thousands of small, possibly robotic, skimmers working close enough to mother ships to free them of storage and separation functions. In effect, a fleet of oil-seeking mega-Roombas.

Luckily, the problems you face are probably smaller scale than that. Here are some questions that will generate ideas using what is already known about failures.

Why have the ideas we've tried failed? If we were to try them again, would they fail the same way or would they fail in new ways? What did their failures have in common?
How does this new idea Why have the ideas we've tried
failed? If we were to try
them again, would they
fail the same way?
differ from others we've tried or rejected? If it doesn't differ by much, how can we make it more novel?
How expensive is exploring this idea? How can we make exploration cheaper? Can we pilot it? How expensive would it be to implement?
What parts of the problem would this idea resolve? What parts of the problem would remain? Why?
If we implement this idea would it move us forward? What can we change about this idea to make it even more effective?

You get the idea. Now, if you were to try to exploit failed ideas, and the suggestions above all failed, what else could you do?

Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

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## Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

How We Avoid Making Decisions
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"
In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
Overtalking: III
Overtalking other people is a practice that can be costly to organizations, even though it might confer short-term benefits on the people who engage in it. If you find that you are one who overtalks others, what can you do about it?
Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions.

See also Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
And on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

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