What Does This Technique Offer?

At its simplest, reverse thinking is about reversing a problem, scenario, situation, risk, opportunity, assumption or even question. It can also be called “reverse brainstorming”, “negative brainstorming”, or simply “reverse questioning”.

It is moving away from “Why?” or “How?” and thinking in terms of “Why not?” or “How not?” or the other way around. So, “How might this work?” might become “How might this NOT work?“.

For example, it can be really helpful with assumptions. Let’s say, we assume we need to respond to customer emails within 24 hours. What if we only responded after 24 hours? What would that look like? What other assumptions are we making about how we serve clients? How might we reverse them?

It can also be used to deepen our thinking. So, this technique not only invites us to reframe “How might the firm win more business?” directly as “How might the firm win less business?” or “How might the firm lose business?” but also go down avenues such as “How might the firm profit from losing business?

Benefits of the Technique

  • Unearths hidden risks and opportunities: By asking what might go wrong or how something might not work we completely change how we think about it. This can unlock issues that don’t get aired in conventional solution-focused thinking, which often has a “can do” attitude. The opposite is true when everyone is only seeing the negatives.

Opportunities may carry risks, but risks may also offer opportunities.

  • Stimulates curiosity and creativity: Posing unconventional or unexpected questions or inverting problems can stimulate fresh thinking and offer new perspectives. This can encourage participants to stop thinking in terms of boxes and start asking more interesting questions.

Possibility lives in the land of impossibility.

  • Creating safe space for criticism: This approach gives everyone permission to give negative feedback without negative consequences. At the very least everyone gets to voice their concerns. Moreover, some of these concerns are likely to be very valid and will help generate positive actions.
  • Facilitates comprehensive planning: By identifying potential problems ahead of time, teams can devise mitigation strategies or indeed cull ideas at an earlier stage.

Real-World Example

A startup is planning to launch a new software designed to allow users to collaborate on new ideas. As with many such projects, the team is convinced that its solution is revolutionary and will be an instant success.

However, instead of asking, “How can we ensure the software’s success?“, the team could reverse thinking by asking, “What would make users absolutely hate our software?

Some potential frustrations:

  • Complex user interface.
  • Poor search functionality.
  • Slow response times.
  • Insufficient customer support.

By addressing these concerns head-on, the team might:

  • Simplify the user interface.
  • Allow users to create more dynamic search journeys.
  • Optimise the software’s speed.
  • Identify potential pain points and provide targeted support.

This is about foreseeing potential pitfalls and thereby turning potential negatives into strengths.

Questions in the Image:

  • Why won’t this work?
  • How can we make it worse?
  • How might we annoy clients?

Want to Read More Around this Topic?

The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking by Roger L. Martin (link to Amazon.co.uk). Whether or not reading this book will help you I will leave to you. Knowing of its existence and premise may, however, be helpful. The author simply invites us not to see opposites as two separate choices but as offering fertile ground for more creative solutions.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. Today, because I am in reverse thinking mode, I am wondering not “What questions am I asking?” but rather “What questions am I NOT asking?

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.