We’ve all been in group brainstorm sessions where everyone is shouting out ideas but none of them really solve the problem at hand. It sounds counterintuitive, but social designer Marc O'Brien says trying to come up with right answers shuts down our creativity. The key to generating truly innovative ideas, he says, is learning how to challenge the status quo—which is why he's busy trying to teach people how to "think wrong"
People "need to keep their imagination alive and not feel like they need to be right all the time," says O'Brien, who facilitates a workshop series called "How to Think Wrong." That's difficult because by the time we're adults, we're afraid of failure. People tend to do things—including thinking of ideas—the same way over and over again because it feels safe. Yet working within our comfort zone renders us unable to approach problems with a truly fresh perspective.
In the workshops, "we don’t take ourselves seriously. We’re not businesspeople," O'Brien says. That means exercises with names like like "Random Word", "Shit Storm", and "Empty Your Pockets" are fun, loosely structured, and encourage participants to question protocol. Participants don't stay in a conference room all day, either. In the "10x10x10" exercise, they leave the workshop space, talk to 10 different people in 10 different locations, then return with 10 different stories. "Conversations lead to ideas, and ideas lead to bigger projects," says O'Brien.
Over the past decade, the workshops—which are the brainchild of designer and co-facilitator John Bielenberg and Project M, a platform that allows creative individuals to use their talents for the greater good—have taught these techniques to nearly 1,000 people from a variety of backgrounds and professions. Workshops range in length from intensive day sessions offered through Skillshare that provide an overview of the methods to immersive two-week-long camps in which a dozen or so individuals develop projects to solve social problems using their newly acquired wrong-thinking abilities. Pie Lab, a successful Greensboro, Alabama restaurant-cum-community center—you can learn everything from business skills to square dancing, all while enjoying a slice of pie—is one such project hatched in a "think wrong" camp.
After someone finishes a session, they are encouraged to inject the approach into their work. Although Project M's studio, the aptly named Future Project, isn't currently running workshops, O'Brien is open to the possibility. "If students learned from the time they entered elementary school that it's ok to make mistakes and take what works and build off of that and continue to be curious," he says, they'd never lose their imagination.