Crowdsourcing and brilliant ideas that were originally rejected. No such thing as a bad idea?

Have you ever been to an engagement /consultation/staff development day and been asked to write down your ideas on ‘post it notes’ and then stick them on flip charts?

Someone then dutifully collects the forest of paper and promises to type them up and share the results.

Months later you get sent a document full of random bullet points that mean very little to you. Somewhere amongst the mess your brilliant idea is buried…..lost, forever.

There are similarities here with Crowdsourcing and the idea that ‘you have to move a lot of muck to find the golden nugget’. Asking a number of people to contribute ideas, even as part of an ‘engagement’ day, is a type of crowdsourcing. I reckon there are things that could be learnt from successful examples of crowdsourcing and applied here. Before that, it’s worth a look at how some brilliant ideas were originally rejected (even the Apple personal computer!).

Brilliant ideas that were originally rejected.

A quick internet search of ‘brilliant ideas that were originally rejected’ generates an impressive list of everyday products and services that were originally rejected. This list on might whet your appetite if you want to research some of the astonishing examples. A few of my favourites:

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction”. Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872.
  • “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.” Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer.

So what has this got to do with Crowdsourcing?

In the recent post about crowdsourcing I used examples from Dell IdeaStorm and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill. One of the points I made was, that for Dell, there is a ratio of roughly 1:37 of ideas implemented to ideas submitted. In the case of the Gulf Oil Spill this was 1:1433. A bit like the ‘lost’ post it note in the engagement day, what are the chances of a brilliant idea being buried in the 1432 rejected? (In fact over 42,000 ideas were rejected).

This is a tricky situation to handle. How do you make sure the brilliant ideas don’t slip through the crowdsourcing net? There is no easy answer, but here are some thoughts based upon what I’ve learnt.

  1. Don’t throw anything away. Based upon the idea that there is ‘no such thing as a bad idea’, keep hold of everything. Treat them like precious gems and store them carefully.
  2. Let people see the collection. This serves many purposes one of which is to reassure people that their idea has been acknowledged. The ideas collection can provide inspiration for new ideas and learning from previous attempts. There is a lot that can be learnt from recovering ‘lost corporate memory’ and having the equivalent of a ‘museum of failed products and ideas’ to browse.
  3. Let people interact with the collection. Allow people to comment on ideas. If lots of people have a similar idea, allow them to work together to turn it into reality. The voting and commenting approaches seen in Dell IdeaStorm are a great way of testing ideas amongst a a community of experts and peers. Before the organisation tries to do something with the idea, it has had some robust evaluation and feasibility testing. Making this activity open and visible to all is essentail.
  4. Keep looking at the ideas. Remember that context is important. Circumstances change. Technology develops, materials become cheaper, attitudes change. A completely wrong idea from a few years ago might be brilliant today.
  5. Implement some ideas, and tell people. This sounds obvious, but it is good to see progress. Have a look at the MyStarBucks graphic which summarises the first 5 years of the scheme. This must help with keeping people motivated and involved, the ideas submitted to MyStarbucksIdea have certainly increased year on year.


Is there no such thing as a bad idea?

I have to say, “you don’t know until it’s been looked at … properly… which might involve trying it out”.

From the point of view of crowdsourcing, this means keeping hold of EVERY idea, and letting the crowd look at what is there. The benefit of the crowd extends beyond just coming up with the ideas, they can help to manage, refine and implement the ideas. Just as relevant to the ‘massive online social media driven commercial product’ as it is to the ‘post it’ notes from the staff development day.

So, whats the PONT?

  1. Ideas are like precious gems, you need to look after them, put them on show and polish occasionally.
  2. In addition to generating ideas, crowds can help to manage and implement them.
  3. There is no such thing as a bad idea, until you’ve had a good look at it….. this could take long time.

Picture Source:

MyStarbucksIdea: Graphic.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

13 Responses

  1. Great post. Really like the interaction focus. I’ve often got teams & participants to discuss, share & then vote on ideas from away days & storming sessions.
    Highest voted ideas or suggestions then get taken forward & developed into objectives & (if feasible) actions etc. It helps give meaning to & encourages more engagement in the process.

  2. The democracy of ideas is a great idea in itself. That everyone has the chance to explain their equally valued ideas and shoulder the ownership of learning from them to give to, and on behalf of, the many is a wonderful place to be. The trick is not to be panicked by what can feel like anarchy and a diversion from a regime of, for example, targets and goals. This can result in a meritocracy of ideas, some being more equal (read that as, “relevant”) than others. So on to leadership…

      1. Do you know, friends and colleagues, this is getting jolly interesting? Course you did, ‘cos we are kind of crowd sourcing as we write, putting our typing fingers where our heads and mouths are!

        Two (slightly random and using our conversation to give context) things: the “herd” is acting as a (OK, purists…) mind meld of reactivity within a narrow space about something – Derren Brown (Lord of the Flies was largely about this too) has done some mighty showman like experiments on this; and, second, the crowd is offering a more widely gathered pool of resource which may or may not be relevant. The brave thing is to allow people to be irrelevant, but also to understand why they are for themselves. Bryn reminds me that nature’ s way with complexity and abundance is to select what actually works and can be sustained.

        Cheers all and, yes, Chris! catch up before too long.


  3. Thanks for the post! I’ve had experience with failed innovation management programs, and it can be very discouraging. AT&T has an internal Innovation Pipeline system, and I recently read an article indicating it has been quite successful. Bringing crowds together on a software platform to capture, rate and track ideas can be useful here. BTW, I have created this type of platform so I’m a bit biased towards a software based solution :-).

  4. Another great post, and an interesting model for a large organisation to adopt. Welcome to The Ideas Museum: success in the room to your right, failures in the aircraft hanger to your left.
    Only one little quibble – there are bad ideas. Great big stonking ones as well as tiny little insidious ones, and most of them have not only been around long enough to reveal themselves as such, but they remain in play long after everyone.
    Nevertheless, I think we can’t say ‘anything goes’. We should be able to distinguish between bad ideas: unimaginative; unrealistic; unethical – and ones that are at least possible, positive and in the procurement budget. Rather boringly, I suggest we recognise that there are bad ideas, straight off the bat, but should be able to provide a coherent argument for why its a bad idea. That, I think,is the most valuable role for the crowd. Varied experience and multiple perspectives should provide a crucible in which ideas can be tested. Like Baby Sea Turtles, some will die at birth, some will die in the sand, some will be bird food, some will make it to the sea – only to be eaten by the patiently waiting fish, and some will find clear water and sail on to enjoy a long life (as long as they don’t cross the path of any humans – turtles, sadly, are good eating).
    Oops, what’s the point? I remember, let the ideas be tested out in the arena of argument, not just a blind ‘vote for your favourite’, but defences must be made, attacks launched. If an idea seems bad to you say why, if seems good, your opinion still requires justifcaton. I seem to be imagining a gladiatorial contest, the survival of which earns the right to be carried gently to the calm waters and set free in the world.

  5. adigaskell

    The challenge for this will be an intellectual property one. Think of a couple of scenarios:

    1. All submissions are automatically the IP of the sponsor. In such an instance, the sponsor may decide to open up all submissions for further development under a kind of revenue share model, but people wouldn’t be able to cherrypick ideas they think could work and start developing them willy nilly.

    2. Winning submissions are the IP of the sponsor. In this second instance, the ‘losing’ submissions remain the IP of the entity that submitted them. They may again look badly on someone taking their idea, which may have received a lot of time and energy, and turning it into something.

    This kind of intellectual piggy packing often works in open source environments, but many crowdsourcing projects have a financial bounty at the end of it, which may muddy the waters somewhat.

  6. JMI

    Really interesting WTP, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across explaining crowds, open innovation, and citizen science.​ ​In particular I feel you may find these two emerging pieces of research very relevant:

    – The Theory of Crowd Capital

    – The Contours of Crowd Capability

    Powerful stuff, no?

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