Inverted brainstorming: What it is and how it can change things

To say that your team will run into problems in the course of your work is like saying you’re likely to get wet when standing under the rain: it’s more of an eventuality than a possibility. Problems are a standard expectation of any high-functioning and critical team in any organization, often coming into a direct relationship with each other. The more integral your team is to the business, the more likely you will face complex problems.

Your team is likely set up in a way that your members are assigned based on expertise and experience. Each member of your team brings with them a litany of skills and personal tactics to overcome any particular problem. Still, it can be challenging to get all their ideas together and in a coherent and useful form to tackle a single project.

Problems, especially complex ones, rarely have a distinct and singular way to be solved. As an interesting way to go beyond the drawbacks of the old standard brainstorming method, this article will introduce “inverted brainstorming” which can help kick-start your team’s next session with a new perspective.

What is Inverted Brainstorming?

You should never limit yourself to going about one thing in just one way. Nearly everything needs innovation in one way or another, and brainstorming is no different. Inverted brainstorming is essentially a way to add a layer of lateral thinking to your planning sessions. Instead of tackling things by asking “What can we do to solve this problem?”, you ask the question “What can we do to actively make this problem happen?”. It’s a strange frame of questioning, but there is a reason for this unorthodox approach to brainstorming.

The principle of inverted brainstorming is that it introduces a new perspective towards the solving of the problem in that you actively look to some of the causes of the problem in the first place. Finding solutions can be tricky even for the simplest issues, but often thinking about what may be the cause of certain issues is easy enough to hypothesize with a bit of logic. This is the first “reversal” that occurs in an inverted brainstorming session.

In thinking about what may cause the problem in the first place, teams can then come together and see how best they can begin creating solutions and plans of action to avoid some of these “reversed solutions” that cause the problems in the first place. This is the second “reversal” that occurs where your team begins to switch gears once more to revert to problem-solving mode.

There is a learning curve to this method that requires some practice from both the meeting facilitator and individual team members alike. But with time and perseverance, this method can be your near way of attacking particularly ambiguous problems.

How This Differs from Regular Brainstorming

Brainstorming” is the catch-all term for when you need to start bringing your team together and attacking a particular issue that the business is facing. The problem with brainstorming is that it essentially provides your team with a blank canvas, which sounds like a good thing but can be a problem for those looking to develop a clear pathway to a solution. “Limitations help us edit”, Shannon Morrison, CCO of IM Creative, shares with LinkedIn. Without guidelines or at least a base starting point, you might find your team roaming the wilds with no clear path forward.

Inverted brainstorming guides without sacrificing the flexibility of a traditional brainstorming session. Both sessions require free sharing of thought, especially ideas that may not seem entirely relevant at the moment. Reversing the perspectives of your team towards a “problem” mentality can better frame the problem in what exactly may be causing it to occur in the first place. This is known as “double-loop learning” in some organizations, a term coined by Chris Argyris for HBR, where getting to the root cause of the problem was a key theoretical priority for companies looking to maintain a competitive advantage in the market.

Steps to Inverted Brainstorming

As inverted brainstorming is likely to be relatively new to most readers, we’ve laid out some of the most important steps to holding this reversed session. The framework itself remains a free-flowing discussion between meeting leads and participants, with the sharing of ideas tantamount to the success of the session.

For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on an example of many of you working in a direct-to-consumer business experience: customer satisfaction. Naturally, this is a relatively context-heavy problem that will have solutions dependent on the specific situation of the company. But it also remains pretty broad in scope, where a brainstorming session might have trouble even properly defining the limitations of where the problem starts and ends.

Hence, we will use the inverted brainstorming approach to attack this problem and hopefully come out with more than a few ways to solve this.

Listing Your Main Problem Clearly

The first thing you’ll need to do in any problem-solving situation regardless of the framework used is to properly define your main problem clearly. Without a clear view of what you’re trying to solve, your inverted brainstorming process will likely be focused on the wrong things, rendering the entire exercise moot.

For our customer satisfaction problem, we can better understand the problem if we put it in the form of a statement: “What can we do to improve customer satisfaction in our stores?”. This is a standard problem statement that you’re likely to run into and even assigned to by your directors. This, however, leaves a lot to the imagination and contexts of your business. There’s a litany of things you can do to improve customer satisfaction for whatever you’re selling. The question that arises is how can you decide the best avenue of approach.

Begin the Reversal Process

As this problem is likely very context-heavy, you’ll benefit heavily from utilizing an inverted brainstorming session to attack this. The next step after laying out what your problem is is to reverse it. This means taking your problem and framing it in a way to go against it or continue the problem as it stands.

To better illustrate, let’s take the customer satisfaction problem statement we just developed, “What can we do to improve customer satisfaction in our stores?”, and flip it to “What can we do to harm customer satisfaction in our stores?”. This simultaneously creates a much-needed prompt for your team as well as provides some guidelines on their thinking processes.

Naturally, you won’t actually be carrying out any of the ideas that will be brought forth in this first reversal step. Still, you need to ensure that you don’t shut down ideas at this stage as it’s integral to get as many ideas out and about as you look for these “reverse solutions”.

Get Reverse Solutions for the Reverse Problem

As we introduced right above, it’s in this part that you’ll want your team to begin exploring avenues to “solve” the “reversed problems”. Essentially, you want your team to look for ways to support that “reversed problem statement” that you just developed. It may sound like sabotage at this point, but it has tremendous benefits for thinking outside the box.

Again, for our customer satisfaction example, we have now arrived at our reverse problem of “What can we do to harm customer satisfaction in stores?”. This part can get fairly entertaining as you and your team are now tasked with looking for ways to make this statement a reality.

In order to actively harm customer satisfaction in stores, you can look towards training your in-store staff to be actively rude to customers and disrespect them at every turn. You can also look towards the product service itself and avoid giving out warranties and reasonable return policies. You can even go wild and propose random price hikes without any prior warning. All of these and more can definitely take your customers for a ride and have them writing very angry reviews online. But the key here is to look for ideas that will really get your customers going.

At this point, you’re only about halfway through the exercise as you have now identified what are essentially key pain points that will definitely affect your customer’s overall experience with your brand. Now we get back into the problem-solving part with our next reversal.

Reverse the Reversed Solutions

At this juncture, you want to take all these “solutions” for your reversed solution statement and convert them back to possible opportunities for development for the actual problem statement you’re trying to solve. This is a key step as it reorients you and your team back towards the issue at hand, giving you all a better perspective on where you are now at the brainstorming.

For our case, we’ve picked a few key items that are definitely going to cause a dip in customer satisfaction. These include:

  • Being actively rude and disrespectful.
  • Bad post-purchase service and unfair return policies
  • Volatile pricing
  • Reversing these is fairly simple as you essentially flip these concepts to a more positive perspective, such as:
  • Training staff at proper service and to be polite
  • Developing the proper post-purchase services and adhering to fair return policies
  • Ensuring consistent pricing practices

These three solutions might seem to be fairly obvious looking at them now, but remember that when we were prompted with our original problem statement of “What can we do to improve customer satisfaction in our stores?”, your team might not have gotten to these salient points just as fast. It’s likely they would have played with non-critical factors for a bit before arriving at those items that truly matter to your customers.

As we mentioned before, this plays into the concept of double-loop learning in organizations where the key to truly solving a problem is getting to the root cause of the thing in the first place.

Evaluate Your Team’s Output So Far

If this is your first time running an inverted brainstorming session, you’re likely not to hit every nail on the head on the first go. It’s a fairly unorthodox framework at the get go, and having your team adapt to such a “reversed” line of thinking will likely take some practice.

With our customer satisfaction example, we’ve landed at the following:

Main Problem Statement: What can we do to improve customer satisfaction in our stores?

Reversed Problem Statement: What can we do to harm customer satisfaction in stores?

Reversed Solutions: Being actively rude and disrespectful, Bad post-purchase service and unfair return policies, Volatile pricing

Final Solutions to Main Problem Statement: Training staff at proper service and be polite, Developing the proper post-purchase services and adhering to fair return policies, Ensuring consistent pricing practices

So if you've recently run this exercise, it’s important that you end each session with an evaluation of how accurate these solutions sound towards actually solving the problem at hand. Remember, each team and their problems will always be predicated by contexts that may not be entirely outlined in the exercise proper. It’s important to frame this strategy within the larger situational aspect of the task you are facing. Take time to properly evaluate each solution by monitoring it closely and attaching verifiable metrics to properly measure each one’s effectiveness in solving the main problem at hand. 

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