Inversion
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Overview

Rather than focusing on having a brilliant day, why not consider what a crap day would look like and avoid that? It will likely be easier and will achieve similar results. 

Inversion involves looking at a problem or decision from the opposite point of view so, for example, rather than focusing on achieving success, inversion encourages you to consider how to avoid failure. 

MUNGER ON INVERSION. 

Charles Munger explains inversion well: “Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backwards. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there?

"Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead–through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me where I’m going to die so I don’t go there.”

REFRAMING ANYTHING. 

In other words, inversion reframes a challenge and allows you to identify areas to avoid, simply or just shake up your assumptions and fixed perspectives. 

If you want to increase collaboration in a team, use inversion and ask ‘how might we prevent collaboration?’. Want to increase sales? Brainstorm around how you’d decrease sales. This draws your attention to key blocks that you can address to achieve your goals. 

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. 

Inversion is a powerful mental model that can be used in countless contexts to challenge the status quo and interrupt bias. It is also can add a new perspective when combined with a multitude of other Mental Models. 

Use it to help interrupt and prevent falling victim to the Confirmation Heuristic by asking 'what would I see if I was wrong?'; Consider outlandish 'what ifs' as part of Scenario Planning to identify potential Black Swan Events; or apply it to the Pareto Principle to identify 'how you could best waste your time', then avoid that. There are countless other possible combinations — see the Playbook below for more examples. 

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Actionable takeaways
  • Identify what failure looks like.

In addition to the common project start of ‘defending what success looks like’ use inversion to consider what failure looks like. Asking ‘what’s the cost of doing nothing’ might be part of this exploration.

  • Take action to avoid the worst scenario.

Once you have envisioned the worst things that can happen and identified the actions that might take you there, invert again and avoid the behaviours /decisions that have negative consequences. 

  • Compare ‘cons’ when making a decision.

When trying to choose between two options, it’s common to consider and compare the benefits between them. Inversion would involve identifying what you dislike about both options, or the ‘cons’, and comparing those lists as part of your decision.  

  • Use ‘pre-mortems’.

A managerial practice arising from inversion is for a project team to meet before embarking on a project to imagine that it has failed. They then discuss what could have led to that failure and how they might avoid it. 

Explore More
In Practice

Phillip Mudd on counterterrorism and ‘thinking backwards’. 

Phillip Mudd, a member of the CIA, helped reframe the post September 11th counterterrorism focus using a form of inversion or. He argued that rather than the key question being ‘where is Osama bin Laden?’. Instead, he argued that the real question was ‘how might we protect Americans?’ His approach, which he calls ‘thinking backwards’, involves six steps: 

  • Define the objective
  • Determine the right question
  • Determine the 6-10 relevant drivers
  • Assign metrics
  • Encourage an outside view to identify vulnerabilities
  • Meet regularly and use metrics to drive frank conversations

Find out more via this TEDx talk by Philip Mudd on the Art of Thinking Backwards.

Warren Buffet and Charles Munger on investments.

Munger often cites inversion as a key mental model behind his and Buffet’s investment approach. In the words of Buffet: “Rule number 1: Never lose money. Rule number.2: Never forget rule number 1.”

Limitations

It can be counterintuitive or deemed negative to focus on potential failure. It might also add to fear based on loss aversion. 

In addition, focusing on potential fails does not support building on strengths and identifying more positively framed opportunities. 

That said, these issues are addressed if inversion is just part of your problem solving or decision-making process, rather than the only model you use. 

Build your latticework
This model will help you to:

Inversion is a powerful mental model that can be used in many contexts to challenge the status quo and interrupt bias. 

Use the following examples of connected and complementary models to weave inversion into your broader latticework of mental models. Alternatively, discover your own connections by exploring the category list above. 

Connected models: 

  • First principles: as another way of identifying and challenging extraneous assumptions. 
  • Fast and slow thinking: forcing slow thinking by turning things upside down. 

Complementary models: 

  • Circle of competence: it’s easy to be over optimistic about chances of success, use inversion to test and challenge this.
  • Confirmation bias: inversion can help challenge and interrupt this bias.
  • Occam’s razor: to help reframe a challenge. 
  • Overton window: consider the unthinkable options that might be mainstream in the future.
  • Black swan event and scenario planning: ask what ifs. 
Origins & Resources

The Inversion Principle is based on a maxim by German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacobi: “Invert, always invert.”

Charlie Munger has been popularising Jacobi’s maxim for the past 20 years; advice on how to use inversion and include it in a latticework of mental models can be found in Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger.

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