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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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The Entrepreneurial Enigma

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According to Statistics Brain global data, 44% of startups wind up by year 3 worldwide.

What’s more, the pace of failure is picking up and with it comes erosion of investor funds. In India specifically, last year 15 startups shuttered and that number has almost doubled to 29 in the first six months of 2016 (source: Inc42, a tech-focused news and events startup). 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs admit that the top 2 challenges they faced when they started their dream ventures were: 1) Figuring out Product – Market fitment and 2) Execution & launching the product in the market with limited resources and the challenges associated with doing things for the 1st time.  

Startups of today missed the brief of “innovate fast, fail fast”; instead they went for “scale fast, fail fast” culture. Scale has nothing to do with innovation. Discounts may bring in customers but it cannot make them stay. This is a conundrum that any new or established entrepreneurs or Product Managers face. All they do is invariably start off on the wrong foot; solve a problem with technology. No amount of research goes into understanding the root cause of the problem. The customer problem might manifest itself in multiple, unknown and non-linear ways. In the same way, the understanding of the solution would always fall in the realm of ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ and that should be the starting point of innovation. They put all their eggs in one basket and are unwilling to explore multiple options.

Competitive advantage doesn’t come overnight as it is a continuous process of adhering to principles ranging from mindset to process which can be aligned and applied to solve complex problems of customers. Competitive advantage through innovation most often occurs within a set of constraints, such as viability, profitability and desirability and that a traditional business-minded rational/analytic approach should be complemented with design thinking. 

Did you have the same problem of pinpointing the actual problem before you embarked on solving it? Do you have trouble laying out the solution in a framework that has effect on the entire value chain of a customer’s journey? Have you been grilled on differentiating the “value” and valuation” of your startup or even an idea? Then join us to explore the answer together. All the said and unsaid problems, frameworks to make it simple, pitches to socialize your idea, marketing strategy to position your solution to the right audience and more have been painstakingly put together in our new book “Mystery to Mastery- Ideation to Productization Playbook”.

Ready to cross the chasm between finding the right problem and creating the best solution? The book is launching! Let’s undertake this journey together!