Failstorming

by Admin
Updated: August 5, 2020

Failstorming is a variation of brainstorming used to protect against things going wrong

Brainstorming is a group activity for creative thinking that is usually centered around finding solutions to a problem. Failstorming is a term I created to describe the process when the focus is on what can go wrong in order to get a checklist of things to avoid, prevent, or otherwise protect against.

Some time ago I worked with a company on a new project and decided to use a brainstorming session as part of the initial familiarization.

The opening challenge was broad & simple: “How are we going to succeed at this?”

The session went as well as could be expected but it produced little that someone with experience wouldn’t already know.

We did this for half an hour and then I switched the question to: “How can we fail at this?”

This seemed to wake everyone up. The engagement of the group was noticeably improved and the inputs ranged from detailed industry-specific info to team dynamics as well as the usual humorous contributions.

Everyone enjoyed the failstorming session and almost all of the ideas were useful.

The power of negative thinking

There are three main benefits from switching the goal around to generating a list of negatives:

  1. Increased group involvement
  2. Reduced tendency to reject ideas
  3. Almost all the ideas are useful

As a consequence of our innate negativity bias (we give more attention to negative information), it’s easier for most people to identify problems than to come up with creative solutions no matter how relaxed the environment.

Additionally, people are more comfortable when they can pull from their knowledge & experience which is more true of obstacles than of answers (especially answers that might be a bit out there).

In a normal brainstorming session it’s easy to dismiss an idea as silly and this has to be guarded against. This is not an issue in failstorming because dismissing a negative moves in the direction of a solution.

The list of ideas obtained from a failstorming session forms a checklist of things to watch out for. Overlooking hints to a possible solution (from regular brainstorming) can probably be forgiven; overlooking a warning sign that you discarded cannot. So it’s generally a good idea to retain the whole list.

Failstorm

I guess an actual failstorm would be when everything on the list happens all at the same time.

Negative brainstorming

I’ve seen more or less the same process, where the challenge is to come up with ways of making the situation worse, referred to as “negative brainstorming” e.g. by Kevin Dwyer, but I’ve also seen the same expression used to mean coming up with bad ideas in general, e.g. projectofhow.com.

Reverse brainstorming

Extending the confusion, “reverse brainstorming” can refer to all of the above, e.g. business.tutsplus.com or it can be constrained to finding what might cause such a situation, e.g. creatingminds.org.

More info

“Negative Bias: Why We’re Hardwired for Negativity” at verywellmind.com

“Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” at mindtools.com

Internal links

Changing direction Free thinking Fallacy fallacies Go to Articles
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