Why the “Second Right Answer” is a Bad Idea

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In his wonderful book, A Whack on the Side of the Head (still one of the seminal books about creativity), Roger Von Oech talks about the concept of looking for the Second Right Answer. The idea is that most people (and you can substitute “people” with “leaders,” “teams,” and even “organizations”), when looking for a solution to a problem or challenge, stop after coming up with a solution. A solution. One, single solution. But just because it’s the first solution doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. That’s why Roger suggests going beyond that first answer and looking for the Second Right Answer. And I think that if you do that, there’s a good chance the competition will run right over you.

Motivational Speaker Bill Stainton

When I lead my creativity workshop (What a Great Idea! Unlocking Your Creative Smarts), I guide my participants through several activities designed to help them become more creative—on demand. In some cases, I divide them into teams of five or so, and give them seven minutes to come up with as many answers to a challenge as possible. Then I listen. Nine times out of ten, this is what I hear:

Start to around Minute 4: A buzz of activity, punctuated by frequent laughter, as the teams come up with the typical answers, the obvious answers, the easy answers.
Minute 4 to around Minute 5: The Lull. They’ve made it through the easy answers, and they’ve run out of ideas. The room gets quiet. This is where most teams stop. But they can’t, because there are still (intentionally) two to three more minutes left in the activity. So, very gradually, I hear…
Minute 5:
The crescendo. This is when the participants start to dig deep and come up with the not-so-obvious answers. Which leads to:
Minute 5 to Minute 7: The Buzz, Part 2. This is the renewed sense of energy as one not-so-obvious answer sparks another, and another, and another.

 After the activity is over, I ask the participants about their experience during the process. I talk about The Lull, and I generally get a nod of recognition. But then I ask a key question. I ask, “How many of you came up with some of your best ideas after the lull?” Generally, about a third to a half of the participants raise their hands.

This is why I say the Second Right Answer is a bad idea! Because by the time most teams get to The Lull, they’ve gone way beyond the Second Right Answer. Most teams, by this point, have come up with a half a dozen or more “right answers.”

Now let’s take this into your world. If you and your team are trying to come up with a solution to a business challenge, you’ll eventually come up with the First Right Answer. And this is where many teams stop. But not you, because you’ve read A Whack on the Side of the Head. So you urge your team to come up with the Second Right Answer. Good for you! But you know what? The chances are good that your competition will also come up with a Second Right Answer. And maybe a Third and a Fourth. See, when it comes to creative ideas, here’s the Golden Rule:

When it comes to creative ideas, quality is a function of quantity.

When it comes to creative ideas, quality is a function of quantity. #creativity #producingresults Click To Tweet

To put it another way (which is how Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling put it), “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”

So here’s the take home lesson for you. Like you, your competition will come up with the First Right Answer. And, like you, they may also come up with a Second Right Answer, and possibly a few more. But here’s the key: they will almost never work past The Lull. And remember, anywhere from a third to a half of my participants say that they came up with some of their best ideas on the other side of The Lull.

Bottom line: Don’t stop at the Second Right Answer. If you want the breakthrough idea that your competition will never get to, you’ll find it on the other side of The Lull.

Question: Can you think of a time when going beyond the Second Right Answer—and perhaps beyond The Lull—led to a breakthrough idea for you? Please share it in the Comments section below so that other leaders can learn from your experience.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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