Drive your brain in reverse

Drive your brain in reverse

The German mathematician Carl Jacobi made a number of important contributions to different scientific fields during his career.  In particular, he was known for his ability to solve hard problems by following a strategy of “man muss immer umkehren” or - loosely translated - “always invert”.  He would write down the opposite of the problem he was trying to solve and found that the solution often came to him more easily. Instead of asking how to do something, ask how to not do it.

In a way, the secret to unconventional thinking is just inverting the status quo.  Let me give you some examples.  Say you want to create more innovation at your organization. Thinking forward, you would think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem backwards, you can ask yourself the question “How could we make this company less innovative?”.  Eliminating those barriers and obstacles might help creative ideas arise more quickly.  Another example: every marketing department wants to attract new business, but it may be useful to ask, “What would alienate our core customer?”.  A different point of view can reveal surprising insights.  Marie Kondo, author of the best-seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, uses inversion to help people declutter their homes. Her famous line is, “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.”

One of my favorite applications of inversion is known as a Failure Premortem.  Imagine the most important goal or project you are working on right now. Now fast forward six months and assume the project or goal has failed. Tell the story of how it happened. What went wrong? What mistakes did you make? How did it fail? In other words, think of your main goal and ask yourself, “What could cause this to go horribly wrong?”.  This strategy is sometimes called the “kill the company” exercise in organizations because the goal is to spell out the exact ways the company could fail.

Inversion – so considering the opposite - is not about finding good advice, but rather about finding anti-advice. It teaches you what to avoid.  It is not obvious to spend time thinking about the opposite of what you want. In a sense, inversion is counterintuitive. And yet, inversion is a key tool of many great thinkers.

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