Reverse Brainstorming: A tool to help you see into the future

man brainstorming - vintage image

“No plan survives contact with the enemy"

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder


There is a simple, powerful tool we can use that can help us spot problems before we go live. That tool is Reverse Brainstorming.

How reverse brainstorming works

Reverse brainstorming is perfect when your organisation is planning to change KPIs, targets and incentives to deliver a particular improved outcome.

The approach is based on a very simple idea: asking the people affected by the new targets and incentives ‘How could the ‘right’ result be achieved in the stupidest possible way?’

It sounds so simple, you would think there’s no possible way it would work. I can say, from experience, it works very well.

When to use reverse brainstorming

The right time to reverse brainstorm is when you have come up with your ‘master plan’ for improving something but have not yet implemented it.

Reverse Brainstorming Guide
Free download
Reverse Brainstorming Guide
Free download

Here's an extract from the GAMED targets and incentives course on where Bernie explains the reverse brainstorming approach. The steps he mentions at the start of the clip are from the target and incentive design process of the ROKET-DS method...

How to run a reverse brainstorm workshop

1. Find the right team

Identify a handful of people who are closely involved in the day-to-day business of whatever you are interested in improving

2. Set up the venue

Set up a half hour informal workshop in a quiet room with a flip chart.

3. Use neutral facilitator

Make sure the person running the session is not seen as having a bias towards the activity you are looking to reverse brainstorm - i.e. It’s not the manager trying to implement the ‘thing’ that you want to reverse brainstorm.

4. Explain planned outcomes

Explain the result that is being worked towards, for example ‘Shorter wait times for email banking query responses’

5. Make it safe to be honest

CRITICAL POINT: Make sure the participants in the workshop feel completely safe expressing honest opinions. They must feel that there will be no negative consequences from being completely open and honest. If the group feel they have to be ‘On best behaviour’ this will not work. If you have concerns about using an internal staff member, think about getting in an external facilitator.

6. Explain reverse brainstorming to group

Explain the purpose of the workshop and how Reverse Brainstorming works. I will sometimes tell the Cobra Effect story to show the point of the workshop.

7. Share the plan with the team

Explain what the proposed improvement plan is. The KPIs, Targets and Incentives that are planned and what the expected results are.

8. Ask >the< reverse brainstorming question

Ask the group the question ‘How could the ‘right’ result be achieved in the stupidest possible way?’

9. Record 'stupid'

Use a flip chart, with a vertical line down the middle, and write the ‘Stupid’ actions in the left-hand column.

  • Real life examples that have come up in workshops include:
    • Masking off multiple customer queries on a faxed sheet of customer queries, to make handling the query easier and faster (where agents were assessed on a per-customer turnaround, not on the number of queries dealt with)
    • Hanging up on live customers during a call to keep the calls short and to hit the target ‘Average handling time’ in a call centre.
    • Booking £186m of bad debt in the wrong category on a balance sheet because the ‘board don’t look at that category’.

10. Flip 'stupid' on its head - find fixes

When you have reached a natural end of the ‘Stupid’ brainstorm, it’s time to think about how we can prevent ‘Stupid’ from happening.

In the right-hand column, write ideas for preventing ‘Stupid’ next to each of the issues you identified in step 9.

Sometimes the solution will involve extra measures.

Here's a practical example...

  • One way to lessen ‘Hanging up on live customers during a call to keep the calls short and to hit the target ‘Average handling time’ in a call centre.’ is to measure ‘First touch resolution’ - the proportion of customer issues that are resolved on the first You could also look at ‘Average number of calls to resolution’ and ‘Post-call satisfaction scores’.

Why does reverse brainstorming even work?

The approach works so well because people are much better at figuring out how things will go wrong rather than how they will go right. Reverse brainstorming taps into that common human ability to spot ‘what is broken’ and turns it on its head. It’s time to harness your teams ‘inner pessimist’!