Think Better

Inversion: A powerful skill for problem-solving

Oftentimes, we tend to take a forward approach to problem-solving. We need to get something done, so we plan out the steps to follow that will get us to our desired result.

Invert, always invert.

When you’re trying to solve problems at work, in your life, and find yourself sometimes saying: “I’m stuck with this problem”, “I really couldn’t get my head around that thing”, “I don’t know what to do next” then this article is for you, keep reading.

🤔 What is Inversion?

First, let’s start with what Inversion means.

Oftentimes, we tend to take a forward approach to problem-solving. We need to get something done, so we plan out the steps to follow that will get us to our desired result.

However, problems are often best solved when they are reversed. It’s often easier to think about what you don’t want than what you do.

Inversion is more looking at things upside down and planning for the opposite of what you want to happen. When you invert a problem, you are defining the outputs you want to avoid and then planning out the steps to avoid getting that result.

This thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi. He often solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy: “invert, always invert.” (Source) Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his quote:

“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backwards. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”

Charlie Munger

💎 Why Inversion is important?

Inversion is a unique and critical skill that almost all great thinkers leverage for their advantage. Because it highlights errors and roadblocks that are not obvious at first glance. Blindly chasing success can have severe consequences, but preventing failure usually carries very little risk (Source)

Inversion is quickly actionable. When you invert, you establish a clear plan of attack for what you need to do to achieve your goal. Instead of asking how to do something, ask how to not do it (Source)

As James Clear says, inversion allows you to step outside your normal patterns of thought and see situations from a different angle. Whatever problem you are facing, always consider the opposite side of things.

📋 Some examples of Inversion

Let’s take a look at some examples.

  • Improving innovation: If you want to improve innovation in your company, what you would do is to list all of the things you could do to promote innovation. That’s thinking forward. But if you try to tackle the same problem with inversion, try to think about all the things you could do that would discourage innovation. And then, avoid those things. Easy, right? (Source)
  • Being productive: Instead of thinking through what we wanted our perfect day to look like, think about the worst day imaginable and how to avoid it. Here’s a great example of it.
  • Writing well: Instead of thinking about how to write well, think about how to write bad and start listing things like over-complicated use of language, repetitive words, no practical takeaway etc. to avoid.
  • Being a better leader: Instead of asking how to be a better leader, list down what makes leader bad and avoid those things such as encouraging blaming culture, taking all the credit instead of empowering your team to shine, make demands from your team that you’re not willing to do etc.
  • Improving personal finances: Instead of asking how I can more money, try to list the things that can destroy your financial health. Before you worry too much about how to make more money make sure you have figured out how to not lose money.
  • Better project management: Psychologist Daniel Kahneman supports the use of an inversion technique called a PreMortem which is thought experiment to tell the fictional story of your endeavour’s destruction. (Source)
  • Doing good Marketing: “What would alienate our core customer?” A different point of view can reveal surprising insights (Source)

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage we have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Charlie Munger

⏭️ Next actions for you

  1. List your most important goal.
  2. Use the “inversion” technique to think about the opposite of what you want to happen.
  3. Write down different ways how to avoid this failure.
  4. Solve difficult problems easier, improve your decision-making and innovate better ideas.

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