Another day, another boring brainstorming session. You know the drill:

  • Someone dusts off the flip chart easel or cleans the dry erase board.
  • The facilitator introduces the challenge and, standing at the board with marker in hand, asks team members what ideas they have.
  • One person offers an idea, then another person chimes in, and eventually you have a whole sheet full of concepts.
  • Everyone feels like something was accomplished, but later when you analyze the ideas, they're mostly incremental and predictable.

So you realize that you've spent an hour of people's time, but haven't really solved the problem.

The good news is that you can stimulate colleagues to come up with some truly great ideas. But the technique you need to use will sound counterintuitive: You need to start by generating the worst ideas your team members can possibly imagine.

Why? Because the problem with people (yes, including you) is that we're all stuck in our own context. We have difficulty getting past our experiences, viewpoints and prejudices.

To get past the walls of the box we're in, we need to do something, well, to break the box. And the approach I'm suggesting is a variation of a technique called reverse thinking. The premise is that instead of "following the 'normal, logical' direction of a challenge, you turn it around (or an important element in the challenge) and look for opposite ideas."

The principle works this way: Encouraging people to think of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ideas frees their minds to uncover to what will actually work.

Using this principle, I created this exercise for a team at a company I'll call Acme. The key objective of the session was to engage participants in developing actionable ideas for helping the company become more focused on customer needs. We also wanted to create a shared experience and build comradery among team members.

Here's how we did it:

Introduction (5 minutes)

A leader gives a brief presentation about why focusing on the customer is so important to giving Acme a competitive advantage and gives a brief assessment of Acme's strengths and weaknesses in customer-centricity.

Bad ideas (15 minutes)

Each team is instructed to brainstorm 10 terrible ideas for becoming more customer-centric. The ideas should be too expensive, too impractical, too off-base, too strange, etc. Once the team has 10, it should select its most awful bad idea and assign a spokesperson to share it in the next segment.

Lightning round: These ideas are terrible! (5 minutes)

The facilitator goes around the virtual room and asks each team to share its worst idea in 30 seconds or less. As each team shares its idea, the facilitator writes them on a single flip chart page.

From bad ideas come brilliant solutions (15 minutes)

Now each team goes back to work. The assignment: To take one bad idea (either one generated originally by the team or one shared in the lightning round) and turn it into a viable, valuable solution. The team can reverse the concept (do the opposite) or build off an element of the idea to head into a new direction. At the end of the 15 minutes, each team will have a strong idea, ready to present, with the following 3 elements: The idea. Why it's good. How it will work.

Let's share our ideas (15 minutes)

The facilitator once again asks each team to present its idea in a minute or less. We have a group discussion: Which ideas seem particularly viable? Do any have immediate applicability? Are these others that have potential but need development?

Closing (3 minutes)

A leader thanks participants, discusses next steps.

And it worked! Team members came up with approaches they never would have thought of if they had brainstormed the usual way. And the organizer was able to tweak two of the five ideas the team generated and put them into action.