How to Solve Problems with Reverse Brainstorming

by Saba Software | Posted | Leadership

We all understand the concept of brainstorming. Lock a few employees in a room and the exponential power of combined minds will hash out a problem, issue or creative challenge by throwing ideas at it.

The assumption is that these employees will be “on” and ready with creative ideas right away, and that they will solve the problem with equal, creative participation.

While this semi-structured method for generating ideas has facilitated ad-hoc business meetings to move forward, there a few problems with the brainstorming model we know and… have come to rely on.

For starters, the current brainstorming model is nearly 60 years old! We know more about how creativity happens now than we did in 1953.

Why Brainstorming On-Demand Doesn’t Work

Even though many companies and academic organizations cling to brainstorming as a decision-making and problem-solving model, neuroscientists have long since figured out that our brains don’t work that way. We simply cannot be creative when told that it’s time to be creative. We’re more likely to think through problems on the spur of the moment, maybe while brushing our teeth or travelling on the subway, than we are when pressured.

Another problem with traditional brainstorming is human nature. It’s challenging to put a big group of different personalities (or worse, similar personalities!) in a room together. The “equal, creative participation” ideal mentioned earlier simply does not exist.

There will always be individuals who are passive or just don’t feel like participating on a given day, glad to let others take over. Also, some personalities are stronger than others and will just naturally take the lead. This is especially true when the brainstorming session is dictated by direct questioning.

Direct questioning is yet another reason why we don’t solve problems effectively through traditional brainstorming. Direct questions, such as “how do we solve this problem,” lock the reviewer into one plane of thinking and rule out many possibilities that could actually solve the problem.

Why traditional brainstorming doesnt work

Similarly, cognitive fixation on other group members’ ideas can also hurt the creative process. When the group becomes fixated on one idea, they inadvertently block out other possibilities.

While it’s great to build on each others’ ideas, brainstormers need to be encouraged to ask different questions and approach an issue from many directions. This is where the process of “Reverse Brainstorming” becomes much more effective than the standard model.

What is Reverse Brainstorming?

Reverse brainstorming solves the problems of direct questioning and the singular approach by exploring multiple factors in reverse. This encourages more creative thought.

Instead of asking what a problem is and how to fix it, reverse brainstorming asks “What causes the problem?” or “What achieves the exact opposite effect of what we’re looking for?”

Doing so encourages more participation and outside-the-box thinking. With reverse brainstorming, the question is not “How do I solve this?” but rather, “How do I cause this to be a problem?”

The Steps Involved in Reverse Brainstorming

There are five steps in the Reverse Brainstorming Process:

  1. Identify the problem plainly and write it down.
  2. Reverse the issue. For example, instead of asking “How can I help?” ask, “How can I make it worse?”
  3. Brainstorm to figure out all possible reverse solutions. Reject nothing. Criticize nothing.
  4. Flip the reverse solutions to create real fixes for the actual issue.
  5. Evaluate these solutions and decide if a real solution can be formed.

An Example of Reverse Brainstorming

Let’s say you are in charge of the Information Technology department of a large company. You’ve made several brainstorming attempts to work on the issue of your users not being happy with their computers and the level of service from your helpdesk.

The problem is these brainstorming sessions often result in either complaining about end-users’ “whining” or, best case scenario, a few well-intentioned suggestions that never go anywhere.

Instead, you decide today to round up the support staff for a reverse brainstorming session. Instead of wondering how to make your user community happy and increase performance, you ask “How can we make their computer experience so bad they want to quit being our customers?”

“We could lose their work orders and never get around to helping them,” says the helpdesk manager.

“I could delete their email,” suggests the Microsoft Exchange administrator.

“We could randomly reboot the servers and network equipment,” say the systems engineers.

After all these suggestions have run out and the plan is in place to completely wreck the user experience, it’s time to analyze and reverse these negative solutions.

“We never lose work orders. That’s ridiculous!”

“True, but there are many times where our users must feel that way. In our last survey, many noted that it took an inordinate amount of time for us to address their problems.”

“Well, we manage problems according to severity. The ones who complained had relatively minor issues that were put aside for a while because of emergencies.”

“How about if we establish service level agreements and frequent user updates? Then they’d never wonder if we’ve ‘forgotten’ about them!”

“That would work!”

The process would go on from there as the group would look at their preposterous suggestions to make things worse, only to find solutions they’d never considered before. This is the strength of reverse brainstorming.

It encourages indirect thinking, innovative solutions and creative participation. By considering what can be done to break something instead of focusing solely on narrow-minded fixes, groups are able to come up with ground-breaking solutions.

What do you think? Is this a technique you’ve tried successfully in your organization? If not, would you consider it?

* Image sources: Sales ForceXP, Hongkiat

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