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Use “reverse brainstorming” as a powerful way to improve service

If you lead a department that provides any sort of service, whether to external or internal clients, then service improvement should always be one of your goals. There is a very interesting technique known as “reverse brainstorming” that is particularly effective when it comes finding opportunities for service improvement. You’ve probably heard of regular brainstorming – the popular problem-solving tool used to generate creative solutions to a difficult issue. Reverse brainstorming is similar except that it asks the contrary or opposite questions. In regular brainstorming, you would define the problem, and then encourage people to come up with as many ideas as possible to solve it, from solidly practical ones to wildly impractical ones. In reverse brainstorming, you change the definition of the problem by posing two questions:

  1. Instead of asking “How do I solve or prevent this problem?”, ask “How could I possibly cause this problem?”
  2. Instead of asking “How do I achieve the results I want?”, ask “How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect?”

Then you take the same approach as you would with regular brainstorming, encouraging people to come up with as many ideas as possible, no idea is too conservative or too crazy.

Let me give you a recent example to show you how powerful this technique can be. The supervisor of a small accounts payable department wanted to improve the negative perception that existed of her department within the company and with its vendors. Her original question was: “How do we improve our reputation?” So I had her reverse the question to “How do we worsen our reputation?” Then we conducted a brainstorming session with her team. The group got involved and had some fun with the question, drawing upon both their own work experience in the department as well as personal experiences working with other organizations. Some of the reverse ideas – lose expense statements that are submitted by employees, pay vendors late, don’t return phone calls, put people on hold and forget about them, don’t give people information about when they can expect to be paid – you get the idea.

Then I had them look at each of these “reverse solutions” and flip them into a potential solution. Here was one – our accounting system already logs each employee expense statement when it arrives in the department so why don’t we let employees access the data so that they can confirm that their statement has been received. And so it went on. The reverse brainstorming session revealed almost a dozen improvement ideas that the team could implement quickly and easily.

So where and how do you see potential to use reverse brainstorming in your department? Share your ideas please so we can all learn from one another.

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