Summary: Inversion is an assessment strategy that looks at problems backwards. Difficult problems often need to be considered from another angle. Instead of trying to figure out the correct or optimal answer to a question, inversion considers how to avoid incorrect or poor answers.
Originators: Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi (1804-1851), Charlie Munger (1924-Present)
Keywords: backward thinking, opposite, premortem analysis, question inversion, inversion thinking, avoiding failure, risk reduction, project management, worst case scenario
Several people have contributed to the concept of inversion in the context of making decisions. Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi was a mathematician famous for telling his students to “invert, always invert" as they were solving their math problems. In other words, when students were stuck on a problem, he encouraged them to consider it from another angle, working the problem backwards instead of forwards.
Charlie Munger is an investor who popularized Jacobi’s thoughts on inversion. Munger, who is still alive today, often tells a famous story to explain the concept of inversion: There was a man who wanted to figure out where he was going to die, so he could make sure to avoid that place.
As a more practical example of inversion, Munger has encouraged college students to think of traits they do not want to exemplify, such as slothfulness and unreliability. People who avoid these traits will automatically find themselves moving towards more positive traits, becoming hardworking and reliable over time.[i]
3 Practical Ways to Use Inversion
Inversion is a highly effective decision-making strategy that can be used in many spheres of life. Here are three practical ways to use inversion.
Perform a premortem analysis. This strategy is used before the commencement of large projects. A team of people about to start a large project will gather together to think through the work ahead of them.[ii] They think about the end of the project and imagine every possible scenario that could go wrong. Together the team members talk through possible reasons for failure, and come up with plans to prevent potential problems.
Invert your questions. When thinking about problems, inversion can help people rephrase their questions in a different way. For example, when considering investment strategies, a person might ask, “How could I potentially lose money?" instead of “How can I make money?" In assessing barriers to productivity, a person might ask, “What are some things that would distract me more?" instead of “How can I concentrate better?"
Brainstorm how to be unsuccessful. Most people think of ways to succeed and ways to become the person they want to be. To look at this from a different viewpoint, people might consider who they don’t want to be and what would make them unsuccessful. What traits would make them fail at their job? What mistakes do they have the potential to make today?
Inversion simply helps people consider a problem from a different angle, which often brings new and creative insights into the picture.
[i] Suseno, T. (August 9, 2009).Charlie Munger speech at USC – May 2007 (part 3 of 5) [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkrpoLYY-WY&feature=youtu.be&t=2m20s
[ii] Klein, G. (2007) Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review, 85(9).