How to Solve Difficult Problems by Using the Inversion Technique

Here’s a new framework for thinking about how you solve difficult problems (like losing weight and getting fit, creating more innovation in your company, learning a new skill, or otherwise changing your behavior).

I call this strategy the Inversion Technique and author Josh Kaufman covers it in his book, The First 20 Hours (audiobook).

Here’s how it works.

The Inversion Technique

The way to use the Inversion Technique is to look at a particular problem from the opposite direction. [1]

For example, if you want to be a better manager, then you would ask, “What would someone do each day if they were a terrible manager?” This line of questioning will often reveal some surprising insights.

Here’s an in-depth example from Kaufman’s book…

By studying the opposite of what you want, you can identify important elements that aren’t immediately obvious. Take white-water kayaking. What would I need to know if I wanted to be able to kayak in a large, fast-moving, rock-strewn river?

Here’s the inversion: What would it look like if everything went wrong?

  • I’d flip upside down underwater, and not be able to get back up.
  • I’d flood my kayak, causing it to sink or swamp, resulting in a total loss of the kayak.
  • I’d hit my head on a rock.
  • I’d lose my paddle, eliminating my maneuverability.
  • I’d eject from my kayak, get stuck in a hydraulic (a point in the river where the river flows back on itself, creating a loop like a washing machine) and not be able to get out.

If I managed to do all of these things at once in the middle of a raging river, I’d probably die – the worst-case scenario. This depressing line of thought is useful because it points to a few white-water kayaking skills that are probably very important:

  • Learning to roll the kayak right side up if it flips, without ejecting.
  • Learning how to prevent swamping the kayak if ejecting is necessary.
  • Learning how to avoid losing my paddle in rough water.
  • Learning and using safety precautions when rafting around large rocks.
  • Scouting the river before the run to avoid dangerous river features entirely.

This mental simulation also gives me a shopping list: I’d need to invest in a flotation vest, helmet, and other safety gear.

Now … I have concrete list of subskills to practice and actions to take to ensure that I actually have fun, keep my gear, and survive the trip.
— Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours

Using the Inversion Technique will often reveal daily errors that you may not realize you are already making. Or, as shown in the kayak example, it will showcase potential problems that could arise. Inverting the problem provides a different perspective by forcing you to think through the hidden barriers that could prevent your progress.

Becoming Smart vs. Avoiding Stupid

Say you want to create more innovation at your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem backwards, you’d think about all the things you could do to create less innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things. Sounds simple right? I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid’ things today.
—Shane Parrish [2]

It is far easier to avoid stupidity than it is to create genius.

Eliminating the errors and mistakes that are preventing your success can be just as powerful as building new skills or habits. This was part of the success story of football player Jerry Rice. Rather than trying to build skills he didn’t have (like speed), Rice focused on eliminating mistakes that he made by running the most precise routes. As a result, when his opponents did make mistakes, Rice was able to take advantage.

Reducing Risk

There is an additional benefit to this strategy as well: While there may be adverse side effects from seeking success, there is very little risk from preventing failure.

For example, say you want to increase your focus and productivity. You could take a drug or mental stimulant that increases your ability to focus, but you run the risk of possible side effects.

On the other hand, using the Inversion Technique you could ask, “What if I wanted to decrease my focus? What are ways I could distract myself?” The answer to that question may help you discover distractions you can eliminate, which should also increase your level of productivity. It’s the same problem, but the Inversion Technique allows you to attack it from another angle and with less risk. [3]

Give the Inversion Technique a try and turn your problems inside-out.

Read Next

Sources

  1. This is different than working backward or “beginning with the end in mind,” where you start with the same result and approach it from a different direction. Instead, the Inversion Technique asks you to consider the exact opposite of your desired result.
  2. Mental Model – Inversion and The Power of Avoiding Stupidity by Shane Parrish.
  3. Here’s a personal example of how I decrease distractions: I often leave my phone in another room while I write. Answering calls completely breaks the flow of my work. Simple, but effective.

Thanks to Josh Kaufman and Shane Parrish for inspiring this article.