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February 14, 2024

“Reverse Brainstorming” – Making Problems Worse To Gain Better Insight

by Chris Griffiths posted in Creativity Techniques.

Ayoa | “Reverse Brainstorming” – Making Problems Worse To Gain Better Insight
In a rapidly evolving world, creative and efficient problem-solving will be more crucial than ever, especially for the CEOs and top leaders guiding businesses in an era meticulously punctuated with artificial intelligence and automation. In an age where unorthodox strategies can change entire industries, innovative techniques such as ‘Reverse Brainstorming’ can be a real game changer.

This is a fascinating and rarely utilised brainstorming strategy that turns problems on their head to derive unique solutions. As individuals and leaders, we are constantly faced with issues that need resolving. But what if there was a way to think differently? To look at problems in reverse? Enter the Reverse Brainstorm technique, a tool that prompts you to brainstorm ways to exacerbate the problem, then work backwards to find a solution.

Flipping Brainstorming on Its Head

Traditional brainstorming typically involves taking a known problem and exploring a multitude of potential solutions. This can be an extremely productive process; however, sometimes it’s simply too challenging to identify solutions when facing the problem head-on. The Reverse Brainstorm technique comes into play here, working in a similar yet extraordinary way.

In short, the Reverse Brainstorm technique prompts you to do the opposite of traditional brainstorming: instead of developing solutions, you brainstorm ways to make the problem worse. The primary goal here is to resist the flow of your natural thought process by looking for ‘anti-solutions’. The next step is to draw parallel positive solutions from these anti-solutions by reversing your ideas.

Edward de Bono, the master of lateral thinking, refers to such a strategy as the ‘Intermediate Impossible’, asserting that incorrect and impossible ideas can pave the way to innovative solutions. He illustrates with the example of factories on rivers. The problem was that these factories polluted the downstream towns, and by flipping the concept, they passed a regulation that made factory inlet pipes downstream of their outlet pipes: if they polluted, they would get a taste of their own medicine first!


An Engaging And Productive Process

Whether used individually or as a group, Reverse Brainstorming can make brainstorming an engaging, pioneering, and sometimes unexpectedly amusing activity. At its heart, this approach is about flipping your perspective and creating a delightful chaos that triggers fresh thinking and creativity. But it doesn’t end there. This unique technique creates a powerful platform to produce a wide array of novel ideas ranging from downright obvious solutions to remarkably radical ones, which would ordinarily remain unnoticed.

A Step-by-Step guide to Reverse Brainstorming:

The Reverse Brainstorm technique begins by defining the problem. Once clearly articulated, you change the wording of the problem, flipping it to the exact reverse. For instance, ‘how to get more customers’ could be reversed into ‘how to lose customers’. Next, you brainstorm to come up with ideas to make this reversed problem even worse. When you then revisit these ‘anti-solutions’ and reverse them, you have a new range of insights and solutions to your initial problem.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Define Your Problem: Begin by clearly articulating the problem you are facing. For instance, ‘how can we increase customer retention?’.
  2. Invert Your Problem: Now, turn the problem into its opposite, such as ‘how can we reduce customer retention?’.
  3. Generate Ideas for the Reversed Problem: Begin listing down potential ways to worsen your reversed problem, which in this case means brainstorming ways to lose customers. This process will fundamentally alter your perspective on the problem, prompting you to think outside the traditional boundaries.
  4. Flip Your Solutions: Having identified ways to exacerbate your reversed problem, now it’s time to do another inversion. Reverse each of your anti-solutions into its positive counterpart, converting them into potential solutions to your original problem. You might find that the solutions provide a direct answer to your original problem, or at the very least, clues towards resolving it.

Why Does Reverse Brainstorming Work?

The Reverse Brainstorming technique works on the basis that by thinking about what could worsen the problem, you become more aware of the underlying issues, hence possessing a better understanding of what can improve the scenario. This style of creative problem-solving utilises differing perspectives, which plays a vital role in innovation. By changing our viewpoint, we can often see things that we would not otherwise notice. It helps to overcome cognitive biases and assumptions that usually limit our problem-solving ability. It is a way to experience what I like to call ‘focused daydreaming’ – where one can enter an imaginative state, but with a clear purpose. I talk more about Focus Daydreaming in my book ‘The Focus Fix’.

From a scientific perspective, when we consider the worst-case scenario, it activates the amygdala in our brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. Therefore, the solutions we derive through such brainstorming are more likely to stick in our memory and prevent us from making similar mistakes in the future. It’s a cognitive approach that combines dangers and possibilities, leading to more pragmatic and innovative solutions.

An Example of Reverse Brainstorming

Two planes in flight

The Reverse Brainstorming method was successfully employed to improve an air traffic control problem at a busy but small general aviation airport. Controllers were having two types of issues – maintaining traffic flow efficiency and preventing close encounters between aircrafts. Reverse Brainstorming technique was applied by asking, “How could we make sure two planes do collide?” The team brainstormed and came up with several approaches to ensure collisions, including ignoring radar, not communicating, failing to implement breaks, and poor traffic procedures. The insights gained from these “anti-solutions” prompted administrators to reinforce the importance of these systems, leading to a significant decrease in the number of close-call scenarios and to prioritise where to make improvements.

Unique Thinking

What makes this technique unique is its ability to unearth not only the root causes of the problem but also to reveal some of the most unexpected solutions. Remember the wisdom of German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said, “The solution of every problem is another problem.”

As technology drives us rapidly forward, this technique continues to become more relevant. Artificial Intelligence and automation are the norm, and it is creativity, problem-solving, and human ingenuity which differentiate successful businesses from those that struggle. The Reverse Brainstorm technique is a tool for fostering such skills, enabling us to turn problems on their heads, think without the box, and face challenges with a fresh and open mindset.

This technique can also deliver remarkable insights into personal life situations as well. Let’s say your statement is ‘how to keep your partner?’. Reverse it to ‘how to lose your partner’ and list down all the things that could cause this. Highlight what you currently do, and voila, you have a clear idea of what needs to be improved in your relationship!

So the next time that you or your team faces a seemingly insurmountable problem or tough decisions, remember: perhaps what you need is not to press harder in the same direction, but to reverse your thinking, throw your perspective into reverse, and uncover the unexpected solutions that have been hiding on the other side of the problem all along!

Chris Griffiths

Chris Griffiths, is a bestselling author with decades of experience in the areas of creativity, metacognition and innovation. His books have been published in over 20 languages and his previous title ‘The Creative Thinking Handbook’ was selected by Forbes as one of the best books to “get your creative juices flowing” and named the #1 business book for inspiring innovation by CEO Today. He is an advocate of using technology to improve thinking, and his latest app, Ayoa.com, is used by millions worldwide.

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