Reverse Ideation: Turning the Problem on its Head!

Design Thinking

Ever seen a court drama scene? At some point, the defense lawyer would invariably scream, “How can my client be guilty?” And no, it’s not a rhetorical question! That question begs to be answered and in the process, everyone involved would come up with their own ideas on why the defendant is guilty. Now cut to real life and do the same thing. We all try to engage in normal ideation process in which we begin with a problem and move towards a solution. But another (and equally interesting) form of ideation brainstorming process is called ‘Reverse Ideation’. In case of Reverse Ideation, we undertake a journey from the solution to the problem.

What?

Reverse Ideation = Negative Brainstorming

Instead of asking how to solve the problem, reverse ideation focuses on how the problem can be aggravated.  

Figure 1: Ideation vs. Reverse Ideation

When?

Reverse Ideation can be used as a powerful Design Thinking (through brainstorming) technique to get different perspectives on a problem. It becomes quite handy when we have a team with low morale, lacks energy, or is hostile to be less judgmental about new ideas. We can use this technique in combination with other ideation methods to get the optimal level of participation and outcome.

How?

Let’s take an example of how to prevent people from jumping traffic signals and prevent accidents. Let’s write down the problem statement:

“How to prevent people from jumping traffic signals?”

Now let’s reverse the problem statement:

“How to make people jump traffic signals?”

Don’t you already start seeing how a new perspective emerges to reveal some very astonishing outcomes? Here are some of the few “reverse” ideas that emerge:

  • Randomly change the sequence of traffic signals
  • Short duration of Green for one side and long one for another
  • Shut down the traffic signal with no traffic police coordinating
  • Make motorists restless with endless wait

Let’s treat these inputs problems and try to find solutions for each of them. At the end of the brainstorming session, you would have a long list of ‘reverse’ solutions. It’s now time to scrutinize each idea in reverse and find a potential solution. For instance, the discussion may go along these lines:

Table 1: Reverse Ideation Process

And this would go on till the divergent reverse ideas get a life of their own, and a solution is born.

Benefits?

  • Reverse Ideation is a powerful design thinking tool to generate creative outputs
  • It is fun and often improves the morale of the teams that are low on energy or are cynical
  • It works best when people are more analytic than creative and are able to conceptually reverse the problem.
  • Characteristics of the Group:

Figure 2: Team Traits

  • It does not need too much of training
  • Reverse Ideation can be done both remotely or through face-to-face facilitation

Conclusion

Reverse Ideation is one of the very good methods to engage in imaginative problem solving and can lead to robust solutions. The application of this technique is typically for technology scouting and innovation through constraints. Reverse Ideation probably also has roots in human psychology. We sometimes (or mostly) are wired to be cynical and judgmental about ideas. This very weakness of ours is put to best use in Reverse Ideation. After all, to find the devil in the detail, we have to be devil’s advocate.

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