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?
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
- 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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Charge more for the product than is stated in
- 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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.