Inversion: The Secret To Solving Every Problem
How many times have your best made plans actually gone to plan? Where everything lined up and it was perfect.
I'm going to guess probably not that often, if at all.
Since our natural tendency is to think in one direction we often see an opportunity or challenge and think forward to the outcome we desire.
However, we don’t often think about what could stop us from getting there.
If we believe Murphy’s Law, inevitably, everything that can go wrong will. By ignoring this we’re more likely to be surprised when they do.
It’s the situations we’re not prepared for that stop us from doing what we actually want to do.
Luckily, there’s a simple technique that some of the most effective people use to become aware of, or eliminate, these barriers that can get in our way. It’s called Inversion.
Inversion is the process of thinking both forward and backward through an opportunity or problem with the main focus on understanding what could go wrong.
This isn’t thinking about a solution and reverse engineering from an ideal outcome. Rather, it’s thinking about the things that could happen that would make it impossible for our desired outcome to ever materialize.
It’s a technique that can be used to unlock the strategy to accomplish anything.
The trick is to flip the questions we typically ask. Rather than ask: What do we need to do to achieve X? We would ask: What would someone do who would never achieve X?
The strategy then simply becomes: don’t do those things.
Its simplicity is why most people don’t do this. It can seem too pedestrian or that the answers it brings up are obvious. But that’s what makes it effective.
For example, let’s take a company focused on improving their customer service experience.
The first place they might start is to look is at other companies and copy what makes their customer service experience noteworthy. From the outside, this can end up looking like they would need to implement significant infrastructure and system to effect any change. Which for many companies wouldn’t be feasible.
Looking at it this way the solution appears to be a matter of investment and tools. If we were able to implement X, Y, and Z everything would be fine.
But we know that’s not how these things work.
By inverting the question we come to: What would a company have to do to provide a terrible customer service experience? Here the answers are fairly simple:
Not respond within 24 hours
Only give templated responses
Lack empathy / no human element
Don’t understand the solution they provide
Don’t understand their customers
Now the solution is, don’t do these things that would result in a bad customer service experience. It doesn’t require new infrastructure or tools. If anything it’s a mindset shift and potentially a few new procedures may need to be put in place. Something almost any company should be able to take on.
Let’s also look at how this could apply to your own life.
We’re often told to design our ideal day and then work towards achieving it. That’s great. But, as we know, something will always come up.
So, rather than outline our ideal day, the best thing to do would be to outline what we absolutely don’t want to do, and make our decisions based on that.
For me, I don’t want:
To have to switch between project types often
To have meetings dispersed throughout the day
To be at a desk all day
To owe people favors / obligations
To feel unfit
Of course, some of these things will happen from time-to-time but now I can structure my day to accommodate them by setting some guidelines like:
Only do deep work on two projects per day; preferably one
No meetings before 1pm
Be able to work remotely
Only add value, don’t take or expect things in return
Workout every morning
Now, to do my best work and rather than feeling like I should say yes to everything I now have a reason to say no -- because it doesn’t align with what I actually need and want to do.
It’s simple, and that’s the point. We often overcomplicate our lives by taking on too many things for fear that we might miss out. In the moment it seems easier to say yes because we’re unsure about what we actually want.
Inversion is a powerful way to identify what we don’t want to happen. It’s a way for us to learn more about what we actually want or how our companies can thrive. As Charlie Munger said:
“A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid: early death, a bad marriage, etc.”
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