Consider the Opposite: The Power of Inversion Thinking

10 July, 2023

Discover the benefits of thinking backwards to reveal unseen opportunities and mitigate risks

Sometime back, I was discussing with a management team an acquisition that they were keen to pursue. The team had laid out the investment thesis and the upside from doing the deal. But the team was focusing only on the things that would go right. After a lot of deliberation, the team agreed to look more objectively at the potential risks and the down-side scenarios. The follow-on assessment enabled the team to think more proactively on how to make the acquisition a success, plan better for the integration and enabled them to pursue the deal with more conviction. This led them to putting in a higher bid and winning the deal.

This approach – inversion thinking – also referred to as “inverse reasoning” or “thinking backwards” was popularised by Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffet’s closest partner. Munger is well-known for championing the use of “mental models” — frameworks for understanding the world that shape how we think, solve problems, and make decisions.

Amongst the mental models advocated by Munger, the principle of inversion stands out. This powerful thinking tool encourages us to approach a problem backwards, putting the spotlight on preventing bad outcomes. By flipping the problem around and looking at it from a different angle, we can identify and avoid risks, mistakes and biases that may hinder our success. A famous quote by Munger captures the essence of inversion with a touch of humour:

All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.

To put it very simply, inverse thinking means considering the opposite perspective.

For example, when aiming for a goal, you would typically ask: “How can I best achieve Goal X?” If you apply inversion, however, you would ask: “What are all the things I could do to prevent myself from reaching Goal X?”

This line of thinking forces you to examine potential obstacles, risks, and failure points, and to come up with alternative strategies and plans to avoid them. As an article published by Farnam Street puts it well:

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance…. Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. You can think of it as the avoiding stupidity filter. It’s not sexy but it’s a very easy way to improve.

So, this week, my message focuses on the principle of inversion. What are some of the key benefits offered by this mental model? And how can we leverage its power at the workplace?

Inversion down the ages

The popular rise of inversion can be traced back to Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, a 19th century German mathematician, one of whose theories translated to ‘Invert, always invert’. As Munger states:

Jacobi knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward.

While Jacobi was talking about mathematical equations, the idea of inverse thinking has a far wider application and has been used for centuries by philosophers, scientists and innovators. Socrates advocated for negative reasoning as a way to reveal the truth, while Galileo Galilei used the method of contradiction to disprove common beliefs. Meanwhile, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca spent a lot of time envisioning worst-case scenarios to overcome fear, prevent catastrophic failure and build resilience.

In modern times, inversion has been employed in creating revolutionary products and services. An article published on LinkedIn mentions two key success stories:

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, put the inversion mental model to work when he started Amazon. Bezos turned the conventional retail paradigm on its head by developing an online marketplace where customers could buy things from anywhere in the world rather than building a physical shop.
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has likewise discussed the significance of inversion in his decision-making. He has stated that he asks himself, “What is the worst potential outcome and how do I prevent it?” when faced with a challenge.

The inversion advantage

The concept of inversion is based on the belief that it isn’t enough to approach a complex problem from a conventional perspective. You need to look at it both forwards and backwards. A Forbes article on inverse thinking offers three examples:

  • Why do people buy from us? / Why don’t people buy our stuff?
  • What makes a good manager? / What makes a bad manager?
  • Why did we fail? / How might we fail?

Identifying potential drawbacks and bad practices helps you avoid costly failures, and considering multiple scenarios and outcomes improves your decision-making and planning process. Plus, inversion is a powerful tool for leaders and organisations who want to foster a culture of continuous improvement and learning, since it reveals areas of development and growth.

Inversion also enjoys a positive relationship with innovation. Innovation is born from overturning the status quo and looking for novel solutions. By breaking the cycle of conventional thinking, inversion allows you to expand your perspective, boost creativity and discover new opportunities for progress. As Steve Jobs once said:

“Innovation comes from saying no to a thousand things.”

Inversion beyond the workplace

Inversion isn’t confined to business strategy; it can provide clarity in personal life as well. Whether one wants to improve relationships, health or finances, inverse thinking can help you uncover unhelpful habits and behaviours. James Clear explains the usefulness of inversion through the example of marriage:

What behaviors might ruin a marriage? Lack of trust. Not respecting the other person. Not letting each person have time to be an individual. Spending all of your time on your kids and not investing in your relationship together. Not having open communication about money and spending habits. Inverting a good marriage can show you how to avoid a bad one.

How to apply inversion at work

Thinking about the opposite of what we want can feel unnatural at first. Like any mental model, however, inverse thinking gets easier with practice — and it is certainly worth the effort! Here are six ways to start practicing inversion at the workplace:

1. Reverse your thinking.

The inversion principle invites you to anticipate and prevent mistakes by asking yourself what is going/could go wrong — instead of focusing solely on success. So, next time you’re facing a problem, flip it around to reveal new insights. For example, if the question is “How do we increase our productivity?”, the opposite might be “What is decreasing/could decrease our productivity?” Keep in mind that a specific, well-defined problem is easier to invert. Here’s another example from James Clear:

Every marketing department wants to attract new business, but it might be useful to ask, “What would alienate our core customer?”

2. Address the negatives.

Work on eliminating the “anti-success” factors you’ve identified. This is where the power of inversion truly shines — by removing barriers, mitigating risks and improving resilience, you naturally move towards your goal.

3. Seek inverted feedback.

Upturn the feedback process by asking your team or stakeholders what you should stop doing or what they don’t like about your work. Working on blind spots enables you to improve performance and build trust.

4. Question assumptions.

Challenge preconceived notions and beliefs through inverse thinking. Let’s say you’re facing a problem that is commonly attributed to a certain cause. Ask yourself if the reasoning might be lazy or flawed. Could there be another explanation? Opening up your thinking in this way undercuts confirmation bias and groupthink, and can help you avoid cognitive errors.

The Forbes article mentioned above offers the following advice:

In business, we have a tendency to want to solve problems too quickly. This can result in basing plans on false assumptions. Let’s invert this challenge. Ask yourself, “What are all the ways we have been making bad decisions?” Write them all down, go over them with your team, and make improvements from there.

5. Strengthen collaboration.

The principle of inversion can be very helpful to improve teamwork and communication, ultimately leading to enhanced productivity. Work together with your team to identify behaviours that create unnecessary conflict and miscommunication, so you can work on addressing them collectively.

6. Rethink innovation.

Most innovators dream of coming up with the next ground-breaking idea. Shake up the process by focusing instead on the limitations of current products and services. This can generate significant improvements, along with opening new pathways for innovation.

Inversion is a simple yet powerful tool that helps you steer clear of serious mistakes, thereby improving your odds of success. By looking at problems in reverse, you can improve strategic thinking, strengthen decision-making, and build a culture of continued improvement.


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