How to Use Reverse Brainstorming to Generate Fresh Ideas

From the Lecture Series: The Creative Thinker's Toolkit

By Gerard Puccio, Ph.D.The State University of New York, Buffalo

Brainstorming is well understood, and familiar to most people. If you’re still stuck trying to come up with fresh ideas, why not try this more advanced tool for ideation called reverse brainstorming.

Photo of a diverse group of people brainstorming
(Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock)

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 already used brainstorming, and you’re looking for a different kind of ideation tool. It’s a fun variation, and is particularly useful when there are groups who have judgmental participants. Reverse brainstorming takes a little longer than classic brainstorming, so plan on a bit more time.

Learn more about brainstorming

The First Step in Reverse Brainstorming

Using a similar approach like brainstorming, begin by identifying a specific challenge statement, 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.

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.

Reverse Brainstorming has a nice advantage: it can be humorous , playful, and often generates lots of laughter when you hear negative ideas come up.

To do this, we reverse our initial challenge statement into a negative statement, then reverse the negative ideas back to positive ideas. Reverse brainstorming has a nice advantage, in that it can be humorous, 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.

This is a transcript from the video series The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Take the challenge statement and reverse it 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?

We’ve taken our initial challenge, the goal of ensuring customer loyalty, and reversed it 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. Next, we generate ideas on that reverse challenge statement and we follow the guidelines for divergent thinking. We’re deferring judgment, striving for quantity, making connections, and remaining open to novelty.

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?”

Using Reverse Brainstorming to Create Positive Solutions

After the ideas have been generated for this negative statement, we then reverse them and transform the negative ideas into positive ideas, hopefully responding to our real challenge. One negative idea can stimulate multiple positive ideas.

To return to our example, how do we ensure customer loyalty for a new Internet business? Let’s say we’ve selected the reverse challenge statement, “In what ways might we frustrate our customers?” Imagine we’ve generated ideas on that negative statement. Perhaps one idea was to ensure that there are many layers to the purchasing process. That’s the negative idea. How do we now reverse that to address our original challenge and our goal of ensuring customer loyalty? 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.

Learn more about divergent thinking 

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

Multi-Ethnic Group of People Planning Ideas
Due to the process involved, reverse brainstorming may not generate highly novel ideas (Image: Rawpixel.com/Sutterstock)

The Drawbacks of Reverse Brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming has some drawbacks. When using this method, you may not generate highly novel ideas. This can be avoided by not simply doing straightforward reversals. For instance, the negative idea comes up: produce a product or deliver a product that arrives late to the customer. We then reverse that back in a straightforward manner to make sure the product is delivered on time, and then move on to the next idea.

Instead, 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. Use lateral thinking and ideas to generate more solutions from that one negative idea.

Some people find this tool easier to use, especially when there’s a need to be more playful or a need to shut down pessimistic negative thinking. Because you have the negative ideas to build off of, you’ve got a built-in springboard. That isn’t as present in classic brainstorming. By having that springboard you allow for some bounce to ideas.

Sarnoff Mednick and 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. This is called 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 this was the basis to the creative process, that the creative process happened as a result of associative thinking. He suggested the creative process is an ability to form new associative elements that are recognized as being useful.

Thoughts don’t occur in a vacuum. They line up in a chain, one idea linked to another. This is called associative thinking.

There are a couple of main tenets to his theory. First, 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, and the more creative the outcome. For example, if presented with the word “salt,” the word that might come to your mind first is pepper. That’s a predictable association to make. But, if you are presented with the word “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.

Learn more about creative styles

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

Example number one: what connects these three words? Rat, blue, and cottage. The correct answer is cheese. Cottage cheese, blue cheese, and we often associate cheese with rats.

Example number two: shot, cleaner, and stained. The answer is glass: Shot glass, glass cleaner, stained glass.

In theory, the more right answers, the more associations can be made. Hypothetically, it’s suggested if you can make more associations, the more creative you’ll be.

The Two Types of Associative Thinking

There are two forms of associative thinking. First are free associations, which are unguided, without purpose or design, and as a result, are unpredictable. Then there are also facilitated associations. This is thinking that is regulated by some desire, design, intention, or 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.

Reverse brainstorming, negative brainstorming, and associative thinking are tools to help produce ideas and form solutions to problems we encounter in our everyday decision making. Try them out to facilitate designs, meet goals and create strategies to achieve your intended purpose.

Common Questions About Reverse Brainstorming

Q: What is reverse thinking?

Reverse thinking is the inverse of normal thinking, where instead of coming up with a typical goal and then figuring out how to achieve that goal, you state the opposite of what it is you are trying to achieve. For instance, you could state: “How do we ensure that customers hate our product?”

Q: What is negative brainstorming?

Negative brainstorming takes an atypical approach to problem-solving by coming up with undesired outcomes for a problem and then turning these into desired outcomes.

Q: How can brainstorming be used to solve problems?

Brainstorming helps one to see all the potential solutions to a problem, thus expanding possibilities and to see new angles. Usually the process is more effective when a small group is involved because each person will bring his/her perspective to the table.

Q: What are some methods for brainstorming?

Methods for brainstorming include Brain Writing, Figuring Storming, Online Brainstorming, Rapid Ideation, Starbursting, and the Stepladder Technique.

This article was updated on August 15, 2019

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