Rethink Problems with Reverse Brainstorming

Generate fresh ideas with this group exercise

Earlier this winter, during one of our weekly feedback sessions, some of the Matter portfolio alumni humored me by participating in a reverse brainstorming session. I had wanted to try out this exercise with a small group, and the timing was perfect to focus on online courses.

Community engagement is something that we’re constantly thinking about at Known. Large-scale MOOC platforms have a reputation for attracting a lot of interested participants, but they can fail to keep learners engaged and active. For many courses, learner participation diminishes over time.

This seemed like the perfect problem to approach with a reverse brainstorming exercise. Reverse brainstorming is a great small group activity, and it can be completed in a relatively short period of time.


Step by Step

To run your brainstorming session, you’re going to need a focal question. Choose something that your team has been debating recently, or select a problem that still needs solving.

Maybe you need to increase awareness about a newly launched product. Or perhaps your team has been trying to decide the best strategy for providing comprehensive online customer support.

I started with a problem around online course participation. Since participation often wains in a digital class space, I asked how we could increase engagement within online courses.

  1. To start, take your question and turn it around. Usually we ask questions seeking fixes or solutions. For this brainstorm, we’re flipping that around and creating a negative question. How do we cause the problem? For my reverse, I asked, “What could we do to reduce engagement and participation in online courses?”. Yours might be, “How do we ensure no one finds out about our new product?” or, “How can we provide the worst online customer support?”.
  2. Once your question is reversed and stated in a negative format, write it up on a board where everyone can read it.
  3. Next gather your team and make sure everyone has sticky-notes and pens to write with.
  4. Explain to the group that everyone is going to be brainstorming solutions to the negative question up on the board. The standard rules of brainstorming apply: don’t hold back, wild and crazy ideas are fine; no criticism of yourself or others, keep the concepts concise on the sticky-note.
  5. Once everyone understands the prompt, put some time on the clock for the brainstorming (a time-timer works great or set an alarm on your phone). Three to five minutes should be enough to start.
  6. When the clock starts ticking, everyone works individually to jot down as many ideas as they can think of that answer the prompt. One idea per sticky-note please!
  7. When the time is over, have everyone in the group share their ideas and place them on the board, below the prompt. (If your group is large, you might want to limit people to sharing their top three ideas.)
  8. As the facilitator, cluster ideas on the board that are the same, similar, or share a common theme.

For our session, I stopped here. But if you have more than 15 minutes, you’ll want to take the next step and start flipping some of the negative ideas into positive solutions. Look at the thematic clusters or popular ideas. If you flip them back around to the positive, what kind of solutions do you get? Some might be broad and general, others might be incredibly specific solutions.

Have someone from the team take notes on the positive solutions gained from reversing the negative ideas. As a team, you can decide which of these it makes sense to pursue next.

Why Reverse Brainstorming Works

If you’ve been feeling blocked while ideating around a problem, reversal can spark new ideas and get you out of that rut. Reframing the original problem and looking at how to cause it, instead of how to solve it, can be enough of a change to stimulate new thinking.

It can also be fun! If your team is constantly focused on solutions, taking a different view that focuses on causing problems can be entertaining and lead to some comical ideas.

How to Reduce Engagement in Online Courses

Are you wondering what kind of ideas people came up with in our session on reducing participation in online courses? If you’re setting out to create a terrible online learning experience, some of these shouldn’t be ignored:

  • Don’t send the student any course reminders (or send them way too many reminders to pay attention to)
  • Remove all social interactions (no comments, no discussions, no signs of other participants)
  • Eliminate student motivations (no benchmarks, no sense of progress, no reason for completing the course)

Finally, give your course a terrible design, make the navigation atrocious, and mail everyone hardcopy textbooks before starting.

What would you do to reduce engagement and participation in online courses? How would you flip these ideas around to increase engagement and participation amongst learners in online courses? I’d love to hear your thoughts!