Turn your challenge on its head to create fresh ideas

Turn your challenge on its head to create fresh ideas

Innovation Method
Published On:
May 22, 2023

“That which opposes produces a benefit,” noted the cryptic Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He’s right. Sometimes, thinking of the opposite of what you want to achieve can be a winning approach to getting fresh ideas. It’s the underlying principle of a classic creativity technique that I will introduce to you in greater detail now: Reversal.  

What is Reversal?

Reversal is a classic, all-purpose creativity technique that works for any innovation project and any modern innovation type (such as process or product innovation, solution or customer experience design, or strategy or social innovation, to name but a few). In essence, Reversal invites you to propose ideas in response to the question: “How would you achieve the opposite of your challenge?” As such, when doing a Reversal, you turn your challenge on its head.

For example, the challenge “How to make more money with our business?” would become “How to make our business lose money?” Or you reverse the challenge “How to increase customer satisfaction?” to “How to drive our customers mad with what we’re doing?”

“Reverse it!” is also a basic creative thinking strategy that has been used across the ages to create humor or exciting stories. For example, popular cartoon strips such as Scott Adam’s Dilbert or Gary Larson’s The Far Side regularly fall back on a reversal to poke fun or deliver the punchline.

Likewise, Hollywood has also engaged the unique twists of a reversal-based story plot from time to time to come up with unusual scripts that make for an exciting movie. Examples of movies that are based on a reversal are The Curious Life of Benjamin Button (who is born as an older man and grows younger until he dies as a baby) or Brewster’s Millions (the story of a potential heir challenged to spend $30 million in 30 days in meaningful ways to inherit $300 million).

Why is Reversal a powerful and popular creativity technique?

Interestingly, most people enjoy imagining destructive, negative ideas that create the opposite effect of what they want to achieve. And many people tend to be surprisingly creative when asked to tap into the destructive, negative side of their personalities. So, let’s have fun using this strange phenomenon to come up with wild, extreme ideas for a challenge that lead to the opposite of what you want to achieve. Often, those destructive ideas can themselves be flipped back into something meaningful.  

Introducing a sample innovation case

Allow me to introduce the mechanics of Reversal (and how we use it in our X-IDEA creative process method) with the help of a sample innovation project case. Suppose you’re the owner of a four-star boutique beach resort in Thailand whose business got severely hit by the COVID-19 crisis. You want to reverse your fate by using the crisis as an opportunity for redesigning your business with an X-IDEA Innovation Project.

After you and your team have thoroughly explored your business’s situation in the Xploration-stage of X-IDEA, you have framed your Final Challenge as follows: “How to create memorable, friendly holiday moments for Thai resident families staying at our resort?”

As we’ve moved your project on into the Ideation-stage of X-IDEA, we use Reversal as one of 8 I-Tools to get a diverse pool of gas ideas.

How do you apply the Reversal-tool?

  1. Review your Final Challenge. “How to design memorable, friendly holiday moments for families staying at our resort?”
  2. Reverse the Final Challenge. Turn the statement on its head by changing the wording — and focus — from positive to negative: “How to design dreadful, unfriendly holiday moments for families staying at our resort?”
  3. Create wild ideas for the reversed challenge scenario. Here, you may come up with ideas like “Kidnap the kids from their parents,” “Have the receptionist hit the guests when the check-in,” “Separate parents and kids for the meals,” and so on. Check out for more ideas below.
  4. Deal with your wild raw ideas in one of two ways:
    - Option A: Flip them back. Reverse each wild idea from negative to positive so that the final raw idea addresses your original challenge constructively.  So, we may flip back the wild ideas listed before as follows:  “Arrange a ‘treasure hunt’ half-day activity for kids to give their parents some privacy time to enjoy the resort as a couple,” “Have the receptionist give the guests a big friendly hug when they check-in,” and “Create a separate kids menu with comfort food that kids enjoy.”
    - Option B: Do nothing. Keep the wild, crazy ideas and deal with them in a subsequent second creative stage. I outline this second option in the next section in greater detail.

How we tame wild ideas in X-IDEA’s Development-stage

Unlike almost all other innovation process methods, X-IDEA offers two distinct creative stages, Ideation and Development. In the Ideation-stage, we actively encourage ideators to generate wild ideas (in line with the third ground rule of Ideation, “The wilder, the better”). We also ensure to include special I-Tools in each session that produce a pool of wild ideas, such as Reversal or Born To Be Wild.

In the subsequent Development-stage, we take the time to turn idea quantity into quality and design meaningful concepts based on the principles of elaboration, combination, and transmutation. Transmutation means turning minus into a plus. And that’s essentially what we do when we tame intriguing wild ideas and creatively transform them into relevant, meaningful concepts for our challenge with the help of special D Tools such as Get Real, Pass The Buck, Ding Dong, and Yin And Yang.

In our example above, I used Pass The Buck on the wild idea “Have a deadly tsunami wash over the resort” to tame it into the concept “Wave Pool” (Create a wave pool experience by installing a water-friendly rotating paddlewheel device able to run on its own. Position the paddlewheel in the pool so that half of it is inside and half is outside the water. The motion of the paddlewheel will stir up the water, creating waves as a result). Moreover, I applied the D-Tool Get Real to turn the idea “Remove all the water from the swimming pool” into the concept “Ball Bath Pool” (Have a ball bath pool for babies and toddlers in the Kids Club of the resort).

Here’s a precious tip for facilitators of a creative session

Typically, when you run an Ideation as a facilitator, you explain a creativity technique first and give the group an example to illustrate how the tool works. Do not perform such an upfront brief with Reversal! Why? You want to preserve the technique’s intrigue. So as a facilitator, simply give the ideators the reversed challenge statement and then ask them to generate wild ideas that cater to the said scenario without any further brief on the technique.

It’s pretty likely that some ideators look confused or challenge you on why they are supposed to generate “bad” ideas for the “destructive” reversed scenario. If so, tell them you will give them a reasonable explanation of why they do what they do later. For now, ask them to trust you and follow your instructions. Upon completing the exercise, take time to debrief the technique, explain its purpose and mechanics in detail, and share a practice example.

Conclusion: It’s time for some creative destruction

My previous three articles discussed the macroeconomic concept of long waves so that you can better ride the Sixth Wave of leading-edge technological developments. Over the next 25 years, a multitude of disruptive innovations will come out of three tech spaces likely to drive the Sixth Wave — digital tech, human-centered & health-tech, and cleantech. The related technological changes will lead to the “creative destruction” (Joseph Schumpeter) of old companies in old industries (that dominated the Fourth and Fifth Wave). Moreover, the underlying logic of the Sixth Wave (“moving business towards greater resource efficiency”) will force established corporations to turn their long-trusted business models on their heads.

Creative destruction is at the heart of the creativity technique Reversal, too. So, consider using this classic creativity technique to proactively develop ideas on how to creatively transform your business yourself to avoid being pushed out of business by more creative and agile ventures arising in the new Sixth Wave-technology spaces. When is now the best time for some creative destruction?

  • Reversal is one of over 50 creative power tools in our X-IDEA thinking toolbox. When guiding teams through an innovation project case, we regularly apply this tool in the Ideation-stage to ensure we produce a sufficient number of wild ideas. Please take a look at our award-winning X-IDEA innovation method to understand how we use the interplay of two distinct creative stages (Ideation followed by Development) to help teams generate extraordinary idea concepts.
  • Care to learn how to use Reversal in one of our X-IDEA training workshops? Or perhaps, you intend to pursue a major innovation project in 2022? Please find out how we may support you in your efforts by setting up a well-structured X-IDEA Innovation Project for you.
  • Contact us to tell us more about your organization and your current challenges.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2021. The article will be reprinted in a shorter version in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.

Credits: Title photo by Alex Jackson on Shutterstock. Photo in the text by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash.