Back to Front: Four Tips for Using Inversion Thinking

“If I don’t complete this task right, the project won’t get done on time, I’ll get fired, I won’t be able to find another job, I’ll lose my house and car, and I’ll end up living under an overpass in a cardboard box.” – Classic inversion thinking, source unknown.

I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement—that is, using the carrot rather than the stick to urge myself and others toward success. Positive thinking remains an incredibly effective way to live your life and boost your productivity, but we’ve all had bad patches where negative thoughts have crept up on us. Sometimes, though, a little worry can be for the best; if nothing else, it scares you straight and puts you on the road to success. Imagining the worst that could happen shows you how to avoid it. Furthermore, it’s sometimes easier to work backward on a problem.

When used for problem-solving, backward or worst-case thinking is called inversion. Think of it as Back-to-Front Thinking. If you assume Murphy’s Law is always in full effect, you’re not really shooting for success; you’re managing failures, making yourself aware of what can go wrong so you can avoid those obstacles. Most of us don’t like the idea of managing failure, because it sounds like something you do when you’ve already failed and have to “spin” the situation in your favor. But it’s key to building performance in a world where battle plans never survive contact with the enemy.

These four tips can help you use inversion thinking as a helpful analytical tool:

  1. Practice the ancient Spartan philosophy of the “Premeditation of Evils.” The quote at the beginning of this blog is a good example of an answer when you ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could possibly happen?” How can the project you’re working on go drastically wrong? What do you absolutely want to avoid? Once you know, you can plan for what to do if something does go wrong, avoiding the negative events you’ve envisioned. Warren Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger, has joked that he wants to know where he’ll die, so he’ll never go there. Again, this comes down to managing failure, rather than planning for success.

  2. Man muss immer umkehren; or, per German mathematician Carl Jacobi, “Invert, always invert.” If a problem seems insoluble, turn it around; think about it from the end toward the beginning. Some complicated problems can only fall to reverse engineering; many can be solved the normal way but respond more easily to inversion. In some cases, as with a mathematical equation, if you know some elements of the answer, you can solve for the missing elements of the question. In quantum mechanics, the weirdest but best-proven scientific theory in existence, physicists know the effects quite well, but they’re still searching for ways to explain the causes. We’re still not sure totally how gravity works, at least in the context of quantum mechanics, because it just doesn’t fit the way the other natural forces do.

  3. Reverse the status quo. Challenge your beliefs. Why should you do things a certain way? Just because you’ve always done them that way? Instead of following the beaten path, look at your desired end and see if the road less traveled might in fact make all the difference, per Robert Frost. As the folk saying tells us, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. From the desired result, work backward to a fork in the process, and try an alternate method to see if it’s easier but just as effective, or more so. As technology advances, we’re rewarded with more and more ways to effectively break the status quo.

  4. Consider the subtractive, not just the additive. Stone sculptors and wood-workers represent the classic subtractive problem-solvers. They take a mass of wood or stone, envision what they want it to be, and then remove everything that doesn’t match their vision. They literally subtracting what doesn’t fit. You can do the same, whether you’re working with an inextricable mess someone else has created, or a thought experiment that’s produced the worst possible result. Start subtracting pieces that don’t work, and you can eventually slim it down to what does work and will help move you forward.

Stone Cold Reality

I’ve already mentioned how this way of doing things is more a matter of managing failure than celebrating success. As some put it, it’s easier to avoid stupidity than to seek brilliance. But in fact, avoiding stupidity may prove the best way to uncover brilliance, even when you don’t mean to. Just because you didn’t start out with the intent doesn’t mean it won’t be the result.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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