Reverse (or negative) brainstorming is an ideal technique for people in businesses of all sizes, either on their own or with colleagues. It can also be slotted into short periods of time such as coffee breaks, bus or train journeys or whilst waiting for someone. And if your board meeting drags on you can always let your mind wander a little!

To start with, select an issue or topic about which you need to generate ideas. The fact that some of you will be more familiar with the topic than others in a group situation doesn’t matter for this exercise. Everybody will get benefit from trying out the technique and swapping notes afterwards.

The topic should have a positive and possibility- focused phrasing, i.e. how can we gain/improve/create/diversify/build etc. Check everybody understands the question or statement.

If in a group, nominate someone to record ideas on a flipchart. If you are on your own then make sure you have a notepad handy.

Then (and only then) take the topic and reverse it. For example if your topic is “How to improve sales in the company?” reverse it to “How could we drive down sales as low as they could possibly go?”

Note down this reverse statement. Brainstorm for as many ideas as you can (about the reverse statement, forget the original topic for now) and record them. This is where human nature takes over, we are more likely to record negative ideas than positive ones.

Note your ideas verbatim. No judging or filtering of ideas to be made during ideas generation. Keep it quick and always include the unlikely, the weird and the apparently impossible.

Next, take those ideas and reverse them again. This can be done:

  • directly so if one had been, say “everybody stop talking”, the reverse might be “everybody talks much more” which might lead to ideas about chat rooms, coffee knowledge sharing hours, skill sharing sessions
  • by extracting a principle or meaning so “everybody stop talking” – interpreted as a restriction of rights – which reversed could mean ensuring that there is a policy for appropriate communication with ethnic groups within the company
  • How can I drive down sales?
  • How can I make my production line less efficient?
  • How can I waste as much time as possible during the day?

Even newcomers to this type of thinking should be able to generate 10-20 good ideas in around 20 minutes. Please let me know how you get on.

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