Reverse Brainstorming

Brainstorming is well diffused. It’s familiar to many people. Let’s look at a more advanced tool for ideation called reverse brainstorming.

photo of a diverse group of people brainstorming

In brainstorming and brainwriting, ideas come from your head and the heads of others. Reverse brainstorming is good to use when people are familiar with brainstorming, where you’ve used brainstorming, and you’re looking for a different kind of ideation tool. You want to shake things up a little bit. It’s a fun variation, and it’s particularly useful when there are groups who have judgmental participants. We take the same initial approach as we did with brainstorming. We begin by identifying a specific challenge statement, and making sure that it’s well-constructed. By way of example, we’ll use the following statement: How to ensure customer loyalty for a new Internet business.

So imagine, you’re about to launch a new business. It’s going to be primarily through the Internet, and you want to ensure that customers quickly develop loyalty and remain loyal to your new business.

We take our challenge statement and we reverse it. We reverse into a negative form. For example, we might say, “How to decrease customer loyalty,” “How to increase mistrust between our business and our customers,” “In what ways might we frustrate our customers?”

Next, we take our challenge statement and we reverse it. We reverse into a negative form. For example, we might say, “How to decrease customer loyalty,” “How to increase mistrust between our business and our customers,” “In what ways might we frustrate our customers?” “What might be all the things we could do to drive our customers away?” So we’ve taken our initial challenge, our goal of ensuring customer loyalty, and reversed those into what we don’t want to have happen. Once we’ve diverged on various reversed challenge statements, we then converge on one that comes the closest to capturing the exact opposite of what we wish to do, and then we generate ideas on that reverse challenge statement, and of course, we’re following the guidelines for divergent thinking. We’re deferring judgment. We’re striving for quantity. We’re making connections, and we’re remaining open to novelty.

After the ideas have been generated for this negative statement, we then reverse them back, turning the negative ideas into positive ideas, and thus, hopefully, responding to our real challenge. Because you are diverging, one negative idea can stimulate multiple positive ideas.

So let’s return to our example., how to ensure customer loyalty for a new Internet business. Let’s say we’ve selected the negative statement, the reverse challenge statement, in what ways might we frustrate our customers? And let’s imagine we’ve generated ideas on that negative statement. Perhaps one idea was to ensure that there are lots of layers to the purchasing process. That’s the negative idea. How do we now reverse that to address our original challenge, our goal of ensuring customer loyalty? Well, having lots of layers to a purchasing process might lead to make the process fun. Use a story as a backdrop to the ordering process. Use a visual dashboard to show progress as the customer moves through the system. Have access to a live person during the ordering process, either via phone or by computer camera.

Let’s say another reversed negative idea was to deliver the product late. So, again, we take the negative idea and we use that as a springboard to reverse it and generate positive potential solutions. So, “deliver product late” might lead to “create a simple tracking system;” “give future discounts if an item’s not received on time;” perhaps “make all delivery special, gift wrap, add a balloon, include a cookie.”

Reverse Brainstorming has a nice advantage, in that it can be humorous and playful and often generates lots of laughter when you hear these negative ideas come up. It’s also beneficial in that it can get negative people on board, those individuals who always view the problem from a pessimistic perspective.

Let’s talk about reverse brainstorming. It takes a bit more time than classic brainstorming, because we have these reversals, reversing our initial challenge statement into a negative statement, and then reversing the negative ideas back to positive ideas, so plan on a bit more time. But it has a nice advantage, in that it can be humorous and playful and often generates lots of laughter when you hear these negative ideas come up. It’s also beneficial in that it can get negative people on board, those individuals who always view the problem from a pessimistic perspective.

photo of people around a table brainstorming
Due to the process engaged in the exercise, reverse brainstorming may not produce highly novel ideas.

There are some watch-outs. One watch-out when using reverse brainstorming is that you may not generate highly novel ideas. Now, this can be avoided by not simply doing straightforward reversals. So, the negative idea comes up: produce a product or deliver a product that arrives late to the customer. Well, we reverse that back in a straightforward manner to make sure the product is delivered on time, and then you move on to the next idea. Rather, I encourage you to take one negative idea and spend a little time with it. Don’t just reverse it into the obvious positive idea. Play with it a little bit. See what lateral ideas come up from that one negative idea.

Again, I’ve found that some people find this tool easier to use, especially when there’s a need to be more playful or a need to shut down some of the pessimistic negative thinking. And also, because you have the negative ideas to build off of, you’ve got a built-in springboard. We don’t have that so much so in classic brainstorming, and by having that springboard you allow for some bounce to ideas.

Thoughts don’t occur in a vacuum. They line up in a chain, one idea linked to another. We call this associative thinking.

Speaking of springboards, our mind naturally makes connections. You see something, and it jogs a memory, or it stimulates an idea. Thoughts don’t occur in a vacuum. They line up in a chain, one idea linked to another. We call this associative thinking. Associative thinking refers to how ideas, feelings, and movements are connected in such a way to determine their succession in the mind.

Sarnoff Mednick believed that this was the basis to the creative process, that the creative process happened as a result of associative thinking. He suggested that the creative process is an ability to form new associative elements that are recognized as being useful. There are a couple of main tenets to his theory. First he says, when we create, the larger the set of associations, the greater the probability of developing creative solutions. He also suggests that the more remote the association, the more novel the association, the more creative the outcome. For example, if I said salt, the word that might come to your mind first is pepper. That’s a pretty predictable association to make. But, if I said salt, and the thought that came to your mind was Angelina Jolie, that’s a remote association. By the way, Angelina Jolie starred in a movie called Salt.

Mednick created a measure to test his associative thinking theory. The name of this measure is called the Remote Associates Test, for short, the RAT. Here are some examples of the kinds of items on the Remote Associates Test. The respondent is presented with three words, and they’re to make a connection among those three words. Think along with me as I give you two examples.

Here’s example number one. What connects these three words? Rat, blue, and cottage, again, rat, blue, and cottage. Well, the answer is cheese. Cottage cheese, blue cheese, and we often associate cheese with rats.

Let’s try another one. Here are the three words. Again, think along with me, shot, cleaner, and stained. That’s shot, cleaner, and stained. The answer is glass. Shot glass, glass cleaner, stained glass.

Now, in theory, the more right answers, the more associations you can make, and hypothetically, we suggest that, if you can make more associations, the more creative you’ll be. But, does that truly work? Does the hypothesis hold? The Remote Associates Test is interesting, but does it work in terms of practical, real creativity? Can associative thinking be leveraged to improve creative thinking? Well, there are two forms of associative thinking. There are free associations, which are unguided, without purpose or design, and as a result, are unpredictable. There are also facilitated associations. This is thinking that’s regulated by some desire, design, intention, strategy. It’s more predictable. In deliberate creativity, we link to the second form of associative thinking, creating facilitated associations. But, of course, this naturally leverages the free associations we make.

Here’s a story that tested whether facilitated associations really work. Does it make a difference? The question the researchers wanted to answer was, “Can you improve creative thinking by deliberately facilitating associative thinking?” They used a tool called The Fisher Dictionary, which contains word association lists. For example crimson, flamingo, caboose, and stoplight all relate to the word red. In this dictionary, there are 360 lists that are used to stimulate idea generation. Now, the task the participants worked on, was to generate catchy phrases to print under a picture on a T-shirt. The experimental group was given the Fisher list, remember, which is designed to engage in facilitated association. The control group received no such list.

The results, the groups were not timed. Individuals could take as much time as they wished. The experimental group worked longer—on average, 78 minutes—generating ideas, versus the control group, which worked for about 55 minutes; this is 42 percent longer for the experimental group, and the experimental group generated, on average, many more ideas than the control group—87 versus 64.

Now, this is interesting. When the control group had finished generating ideas, they were presented with the Fisher list, and on average, they worked for 51 more minutes, producing, on average, 50 more ideas. So, this Fisher list, a deliberate associative tool, did serve as an effective springboard, even after the participants were fatigued.

From the lecture series The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit
Taught by Professor Gerard Puccio, The State University of New York, Buffalo