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How to Use Reverse Brainstorming to Develop Innovative Ideas

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This post is part of a series called The Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques.
What Is Rolestorming? A Useful (+Playful) Group Brainstorming Method
10 Best Mind Mapping Software Tools for Better Brainstorming

When typical brainstorming hits a roadblock, it’s time to get creative. One radically creative brainstorming technique is called “reverse brainstorming.” Not only does it get the creative juices flowing, but it can be a lot of fun. More importantly, it can stimulate innovative ideas and helpful insights that lead to positive outcomes.

What is Reverse Brainstorming and why use it
Reverse brainstorming session generating many innovative ideas. (graphic source)

What Is Reverse Brainstorming?

Reverse brainstorming, sometimes called “negative brainstorming,” is a process that turns typical brainstorming upside down. 

Instead of asking participants to come up with great ideas for improving a process or achieving a goal, you ask them to instead brainstorm ways to absolutely undermine a process or make a goal impossible to achieve. You let all those pent-up negative thoughts bubble to the surface. This provides the group with useful information about what isn’t working. Once you know what isn’t working, of course, you have the tools you need to plan for success.  

The best way to envision the process of reverse brainstorming is to compare it to typical brainstorming:

  • Typical brainstorming question: How can we improve customer service?
  • Reverse brainstorming question: How can we make customer service so bad that every one of our customers walks away from our product or service?
  • Typical brainstorming question: How can we ensure that this project is a success
  • Reverse brainstorming question: How can we ensure that this project is a dismal failure?

Learn more about running a regular brainstorming session: 

When Should You Use Reverse Brainstorming?

While there’s no particular reason to avoid reverse brainstorming as your first option, it’s usually used when typical brainstorming is either undesirable or unproductive. This may occur because:

  • Participants are burned out: they’ve already expressed all their best ideas, and have nothing more to add (but the project is not yet moving forward as desired).
  • Some members of the group are making it difficult for others to express their ideas. This may be no one’s fault – some people are more reticent than others–but it’s useful to encourage participation by even the quietest members of the group.
  • Certain ideas, proposed early in the process, have taken root–and it has become difficult to move participants past passive agreement.
  • The project itself has become difficult or thorny, and participants lack enthusiasm for brainstorming. In this case, tapping into negative feelings and frustrations can be a great way to inspire energy and enthusiasm–while also exploring opportunities for improvement.
  • Participants are so invested in or accustomed to the particular project or process that they’re unable to come up with alternative ideas. Reverse brainstorming can lead to some surprising out-of-the-box thinking or unexpected discoveries that can make a real and positive difference.
  • You have an existing product or service that should be successful but is not doing well, and you are hoping to pinpoint issues and problems. For example, if a group were reverse brainstorming a travel app, the suggestion of “design the app to be impossible to navigate unless you already know what you’re looking for” could lead to the discovery that the app actually IS impossible to navigate unless you already know what you’re looking for!

In addition, reverse brainstorming can be used best when:

  • The group is familiar with the problem or challenge and can quickly generate many ideas.
  • Participants understand why the negatives ARE negative, and what the reverse might be.
  • A product or service has been designed in-house, and employees need to imagine the client experience.
  • Employees are new to a particular function.

Why Use Reverse Brainstorming?

Reverse brainstorming is by no means the only way to spur creativity. But it is a great way to tap into negative feelings, hostility, frustration, and anger as a tool for positive problem solving. As a result, reverse brainstorming is the only tool available that can turn a negative gripe session into a positive brainstorming session.

Reverse brainstorming also has several other advantages:

  • It can relieve stress and frustration, which can close down productive brainstorming sessions.
  • It can be fun and creative–a great plus when your brainstorming sessions feel like a march through a field of mud.
  • It can become a process of discovery, as participants begin to raise issues and problems that may have been invisible to management but are major roadblocks for people in the trenches.
  • It can be a great way to get participants past apathy and actively engaged–especially when typical brainstorming has left them bored or pressured to “perform.”

How to Use Reverse Brainstorming

Imagine you’ve set a brainstorming goal–something like “build the number of users who download and actively engage with our travel app.” 

Your team has come up with the usual options–advertise more, make the app more visually attractive, and so forth. But these are all ideas the team came up with long since–and are already working on. You need ideas that are out of the box–innovative ideas that can really make a difference.

So you flip the question on its head.

Instead of asking how to attract and engage more users, you ask “How can get fewer people to download and engage with our app?” or “How can we get our present users to delete the app from their smartphone?” 

Now your reverse brainstorming session begins.

Step 1

Start by explaining the concept of reverse brainstorming, and provide participants with an example of the process. For example:

Imagine we are a group of receptionists and office administrators who work in a large medical practice. Patients have been complaining about problems with wait time, customer service, billing, and more. 
We’ve been asked to come up with ways to improve on patient experience. We’re frustrated and tired–and having a tough time coming up with good ideas for improvement. So, instead, we’ll reverse the process. 
Instead of coming up with ideas to make things better, let’s brainstorm ideas to make things worse. How can we make a visit to the doctor as painful, depressing, expensive, frustrating, and miserable as possible?

If you don’t immediately get responses, jump in with an idea of your own. For example: Let’s take all the phones off the hook and ignore them, so we don’t have to cope with making appointments, handling emergencies, or fielding doctor questions.

Step 2

Collect a few responses from participants. Then demonstrate how negative answers can lead to positive results. For example: 

Answer every phone call within one or two rings. This may require more receptionists on duty at certain times of day–and/or more telephones on the desks.

Step 3

Next, divide your participants into small groups, and give each group a flip chart or white board. Ask one member of each group to act as facilitator, collecting the worst possible ideas from all group members. It is up to group facilitators to ensure that every member of their group has a chance to speak.

Step 4

After ten minutes, call a halt. Have facilitators bring their charts and white boards to the front of the room, and give everyone a chance to review the brainstormed ideas. It is quite likely that the same problems and issues have emerged in more than one of the small groups.

Work together with the entire group to select those negative ideas that seem the most promising, significant, or popular.

Step 5

Once you have a list of terrible ideas such as “Collect as many rotten app reviews as possible,” and have them all listed on your whiteboard, work together to flip them all around so that they become positive suggestions. For example, “collect rotten app reviews” can become “collect positive app reviews,” and so forth.

Step 6

Now review each positive idea. Which are realistic and likely to really produce positive results? Once you’ve determined that, you’re ready to assign tasks and create a timeline for action.

Example of Reverse Brainstorming

Your catalog sales business is receiving an unusual number of returned items. You want to figure out why this is happening, but so far your staff has had no blinding insights. So you ask the  question: What’s the best way to guarantee that every product sold will be sent back to us with an angry note inside?

Some answers might include:

  • Send the wrong item in the wrong size and wrong color
  • Send only half the order – one shoe, for example
  • Take so long to send the order that the customer no longer needs it
  • Charge more for the product than is stated in your catalogue
  • Misrepresent products in your catalog, so customers are unpleasantly surprised by every purchase
  • Make products out of crappy material that falls apart on the first use
  • Make the products impossible to use or put together
  • Ensure that all instructions are written in very tiny letters in Swahili
  • Train customer service representatives to give poor advice or incorrect information about your products or policies

Once you have your list of absolutely awful ideas, try flipping them around to find solutions to real problems. For example, many of the problems above could be resolved by these actions:

  • Institute a policy to double check that each order is correct in every aspect
  • Set up a distribution system that makes it possible to put each order in the mail within 24 hours
  • Implement a quality control process to ensure that all materials, products, and instructions are of the highest quality
  • Train all customers service reps to provide accurate, friendly information and provide them with the tools they need to resolve customer complaints

The list of potential positive actions will need some refining. You may, for example, already have a quality control system. Now would be a good time to assign the task of checking into that system to be sure it’s really achieving the goals you’ve set. If not, there may be simple ways to improve quality control so that customers receive the high quality product they bought—on time!

Pros and Cons of Reverse Brainstorming

While reverse brainstorming can be a terrific tool, it's not always the right choice. Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros

  • The process can be engaging and often fun.
  • It is sometimes easier to find the negative than the positive.
  • It can lead to innovative and interesting results.
  • It can sometimes reveal important issues and challenges.

Cons

  • It's easy to get off track without good facilitation.
  • Reverse brainstorming can take longer than typical brainstorming.
  • Participants may have difficulty "flipping" negative comments to find positive solutions.

Conclusion

Reverse brainstorming is a great tool for re-energizing a flagging brainstorming process, or for engaging participants who feel disempowered or disconnected from the process. It can also be a good way to help employees step back from their day to day experience to see a process, product, or service from a new and different point of view. 

Discover more ways to brainstorm in our Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques or jump into the article below: 

Have you tried reverse brainstorming or another technique? How do you generate innovative ideas with your team? Share your brainstorming experiences with us in the comments below. 

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