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Reverse brainstorming: A backward approach to generating more ideas

Learn how to use reverse brainstorming to generate more ideas with your team.
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Great leaders know that idea generation and innovative solutions are challenging to come by. They know that they can’t expect their team to have a solution to every problem every time. No matter how many solution-oriented brainstorming sessions you have, sometimes teams just get stuck.

So, how do you generate more ideas?

When traditional, solution-focused brainstorming methods don’t produce the results you’re looking for, use an unorthodox approach like reverse brainstorming.

Reverse brainstorming prompts us to flip our perspective. Rather than approaching a brainstorm by coming up with solutions, reverse brainstorming begins by doing the exact opposite: coming up with ways to cause problems.

Table of contents

What is reverse brainstorming?

Reverse brainstorming, also sometimes referred to as negative brainstorming, is a brainstorming technique in which team members pose questions that are in opposition to what they would actually want to occur (e.g., “How can we decrease sales?”). Team members then develop responses to these questions, which are often common problems their company faces or could potentially face (e.g., “poor customer service”).

The benefits of reverse brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming is a lot like those fun “opposite days” we used to have in grade school. Everything we said and did was the opposite of what we meant to say or do. It was fun and entertaining and made you think differently about what was “normal.”

Reverse brainstorming is a way of problem-solving by adjusting your team’s normal thinking patterns through an engaging and fun exercise. When your team is struggling to think of positive solutions, it might be easier for your team to switch it up and focus on the opposite effect. Reverse brainstorming focuses on bad ideas. In doing so, it reveals areas for improvement that hadn’t been considered prior.

Helps identify a solution or space for improvement

The issues that hinder us from doing our best work are not always immediately apparent. With reverse brainstorming, you can ask the questions that reveal these problems and then develop the best solution.

Here are a few examples of helpful questions to ask that reveal areas of improvement:

  • What are the most common customer complaints?
  • What would make our product or service worse?
  • How could this be less efficient or more expensive?
  • What would make this issue even worse?

Jenn Pavlick, director of designer operations at Yardzen, used reverse brainstorming to determine how to improve their customer experience.

The question they posed was, “How can we ensure we provide a 1-star experience to our clients?”

They then listed out various causes that would lead to a 1-star experience:

  • After a client makes a purchase, they really struggle to get through the online platform onboarding process.
  • The first version of the design takes too long.
  • The client doesn’t love the suggestions for plants or materials choices.
  • The designer accidentally misses some important information shared by the client.
  • The designer designs a dream yard that exceeds the client’s budget.
  • The client can’t easily get through to customer service for help.

Identifying these problems allowed the team at Yardzen to design a process that catered to the client’s needs and provided custom solutions. For example, Yardzen was able to put controls in place to avoid exceeding customer budget expectations. By consistently evaluating its budgeting tools, Yardzen is now able to meet and match the market and ensure budget transparency with its clients.

Reverse brainstorming enabled Yardzen to pick out these potential or existing issues, flip them, and deliver designs that clients loved and that fit within their budgets from the beginning.

Helps define a strategy

Reverse brainstorming also has the capacity to help your team define a new strategy for a project or business venture. A good place to start is by looking at your competitors. You can ask questions like:

  • What is the worst thing a competitor could do?
  • How can we ensure we don’t stand out?
  • How can we help our competitors thrive?

Anthony Martin, founder and CEO of insurance brokerage Choice Mutual, found that one of the best reverse brainstorming sessions he had helped his team devise was a new business strategy that set them apart from their competition. They asked themselves a reverse brainstorming question: “How can we ensure we look like every insurance broker?” The answer: “Offer them exactly what everyone else does.”

This led Martin and his team to research other insurance brokers and discover that most of their competitors only offered one or two insurance companies to work with.

“Our reverse brainstorming sessions helped us focus on what we needed to offer to stand out from the competition. We partner with over fifteen different insurance companies, so we can freely match each client with whichever is best for them. This has helped us become the #1 largest online marketplace for final expense life insurance in the country,” says Martin.

Helps identify innovative ideas

Reverse brainstorming isn’t just reserved for discovering and solving problems. It also helps teams produce out-of-the-box innovative ideas that boost an already thriving business.

If your company is performing well and you don’t have any specific problem areas to grapple with, ask questions like:

  • What would cause this business to fail?
  • What change would plummet sales down to zero?
  • What type of content is not useful to our audience?

When Angela Robinson, content lead at Teambuilding.com, needed to develop new and unique content with her team, she turned to reverse brainstorming to foster a discussion that challenged instincts.

She posed the following prompts to her team: “Who is not a member of our audience?” and therefore, “What topics should we not write about on the blog?”

By defining who their audience is not, it helped them brainstorm ideas for what not to write about. For example, several amusing suggestions included: “ten worst team building activities,” “how to quietly quit your job,” and “how to trick your boss into thinking you actually like your team.”

However, the conversation around the concept of “quiet quitting” led Robinson’s team to think about how their audience might actually be interested in information on how to avoid quiet quitting. Now they had a great content idea, and one that turned into “Quiet Quitting: How to Prevent & Combat it at Work,” the number two search result for “how to prevent quiet quitting.”

How to use Canva for reverse brainstorming

One of the best ways to be successful during a reverse brainstorming session is to use collaborative tools that help your team visualize thoughts and collect ideas. A visual collaboration tool like Canva offers various templates and brainstorming tools to facilitate productive brainstorming sessions. In this video, we walk you through how you can use Canva whiteboards to facilitate brainstorms with your team.

Visual collaboration tools and templates are especially important for distributed teams. Use virtual mind maps, whiteboards, docs, workflow diagrams, affinity diagrams or fishbone diagrams to ensure that every member of your team can contribute and learn from one another.

1. Define and present the reason for your reverse brainstorm session

First, present the reason you’ve decided to conduct a reverse brainstorming exercise with your team. Is there a specific problem you are trying to solve or a need you’re trying to fill? Or do you want to generate creative ideas to boost your team’s performance review?

Whichever is the case, put it down in writing and make it clear to your team. This purpose should be easily accessible as you and your team work through the exercise together.

An effective reverse brainstorming session should also include clear parameters to guide your team. For example, include time constraints and a designated facilitator to keep everyone on track. The reverse brainstorming process tends to take longer than typical brainstorming sessions, so make sure to give your team plenty of time.

2. Lay out the reverse ideas with a Canva fishbone diagram template

Fishbone diagrams, also referred to as “cause and effect diagrams,” are an ideal tool for reverse brainstorming since the idea is to discover the underlying factors and causes behind a problem.

A fishbone diagram in which the “head” is a box that reads “Add the problem here,” and the body is separated into four quadrants for possible causes. Beneath each quadrant are sticky notes that read “Add an underlying factor.” There is also a note that lets the user know they have the option to right click and expand the page into a whiteboard.
  • Next, add either your leading problem statement or a question that would lead to a real-life problem (e.g., “Sales have plummeted.” or “How can we decrease sales?”).
  • Ask your team what the causes and underlying factors are that would lead to this problem.
  • Add these causes to the side arrows of the fish diagram and the underlying factors for each of those causes below.

3. Flip the reverse problem, causes, and underlying factors into solutions

Next, duplicate the fishbone diagram design and, on this new copy, reverse the underlying factors, causes, and main problem. Now you have a positive solution at the head of the fish and positive steps to take toward that result.

For example, if the original problem is “sales have plummeted,” one of the causes might be “the sales team is stretched thin.” A solution to reverse this cause is to hire more sales team members, get more training, and/or improve workplace processes.

It might look something like this:

A close up of the fishbone diagram shows the head of the fish now reads: “Sales have plummeted.” One cause reads: “Sales team burn out.” Underlying factors include “lack efficient processes” and “need more support and staff."

4. Evaluate ideas and create actionable next steps

Finally, use the new diagram to evaluate the now-reversed ideas and decide which ones to take action on.

Have your team members vote on the ideas they like best, and ask them to leave comments, suggestions, or other types of feedback. Eventually, you’ll narrow it down to one idea, which you can then create a new fishbone diagram for.

It might look something like this:

The fishbone diagram color has coded stars on the cause: “sales team burn out” and the underlying factor: “need more support and staff” to indicate votes from team members. One team member has added a comment that reads: “Do we have the budget for this?”

Use Canva for Teams to collaborate on your next brainstorm

Of course, if the fishbone diagram is not your ideal visualization, there are many other reverse brainstorming templates you can use:

Thumbnails of whiteboard design options Canva uses can choose from.

If you run out of ideas, learn from the past

If you and your team are struggling to think from a different perspective, do some research into the past. How has your company failed in the past? What mistakes have been made? What ideas fell short of expectations? How have others failed? What are the weaknesses of your competition?

Learning from failure (even from other people’s failures) often presents some of the best lessons. If you want to prevent these failures from happening, you have to know about them.

Once you’ve identified these mishaps, you can learn more about how they happen and how to prevent them. As you research, save these examples in a shared folder for you and your team to refer back to in your next reverse brainstorming session.

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