The 500 Rule

Learn a secret method for generating incredibly original ideas. (Use with caution, because it is also the easiest way to flush all the creative life out of a room.)


It swam into our brainstorming meetings innocently enough. Everyone working at our ad agency wanted to do groundbreaking work. None of us realized how sinister the seemingly harmless phrase would become. We called it “the 500 rule.”

The goal was to separate the truly original ideas from things that had already been done.

Here’s how it worked…

When you consider that there are seven billion people on earth, there is a good chance that for every good idea at least 500 people have already thought of it. With so many people thinking the same thing you either need to scrap the idea completely or push harder to find a new approach to your solution. Blue ocean stuff.

At first, the 500 rule worked. It challenged us to work harder. It was a way to eliminate the time wasted on merely good solutions so we could focus on the brilliant ones. We were all swimming in the same direction.

The 500 rule became the measuring stick that we held our ideas against. It challenged us to question whether or not we could do better. Were we really doing something new? Is there a way we can find a new twist? Had 500 people thought of this but not had the guts to execute? Why?

Then it went bad. The 500 rule became part of our vocabulary and suddenly our idea generator became a predator.

If you didn’t like someone’s idea you could just say, “500 rule” and it was off the table. Blood was in the water. Revenge was easily applied when your opponent offered an idea.

“500 rule.”

One by one ideas were killed with those two little words. The bloodied waters of creativity became shark infested. Nobody was safe.

Our brainstorming meetings became worthless. We became timid, 500-ruling our own thoughts before they could escape our lips. We rarely left a meeting with a plan that met our impossibly high standard.

After a meeting of idea killing, the only way forward is to accept a safe, predictable idea that can be done squarely within the projects constraints. Pride in our work was gone because doing merely good work was a failure since it had the 500 rule hanging over it.

So what went wrong?

You have probably already heard my ideas about the ingredients of creativity. They are space, time, trust, and play. Notice how the 500 rule erodes these fragile ingredients?

Are you honoring the space you have carved out for your work if you banish all hints of imperfection?

If you can’t spend time wrestling with the marginal ideas, how can you make progress?

Can you trust your co-workers when you know that the 500 rule is just a breath away?

Can you play beneath the pressure of achieving an idea so brilliant that nobody else on earth has thought of it?

If not used with care, the 500 Rule can be a killer shark that hunts creative thought when it is still in its critical, vulnerable stage. If you discount an idea too early you don’t benefit from the insight that comes from safely wading through the shallow waters of mediocrity.

But what about when it works?

You might be wondering what happens when an idea actually survives the 500 rule. Good question.

Let’s say you have a truly original idea. You managed to come up with something that has never been done before. Congratulations. Now you have a whole new set of challenges.

Now your job becomes convincing people to do something what’s never been done. Not easy. If you are going to create world-changing work it is almost guaranteed to be met with resistance. (Side note: You can read my thoughts on The Threat of Creativity for an explanation for why human nature condemns anything truly original.)

Do you think you can defend your never-been-done idea? Try answering these questions:

“How do you know it will work?”

“Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?”

“Where did this idea come from?”

You can’t answer these questions without making a fatal admission. You can’t eliminate risk. You can’t guarantee success. You will be lucky to explain how you arrived at this solution.

Your client (or whoever is funding you) probably isn’t interested in risky, unproven ideas. They want a sure bet. Can you blame them? And then there is this dagger:

“I like the idea, but can you make it safer/easier/cheaper?”

How much of your idea are you willing to sacrifice in order to allow it to see the light of day? Will a safer/easier/cheaper version of your idea still pass the 500 rule? It’s doubtful.

Here is the harsh reality. The highs of achieving truly creative concepts is only matched by the lows of seeing those ideas stripped to the bone in front of you. Great ideas rarely, if ever, make it past the sharks.

That’s a bit of a downer to end this post on, but you can handle it. If this stuff was easy everybody would do it.

One last thing. Did you know I wrote a book? You can buy it cold turkey or kick the tires by reading it online. Either way, I think it will help you prevent creative shark attacks. Stay creative.


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