February 5, 2019

Winning by Thinking Backwards

Eliminate to innovate.

Sounds like a ridiculous notion, right?

The concept of inversion is counter-intuitive to the way our brains work when we think strategically. Inversion is thinking backwards. Rather than thinking about what you need to do, or add, to achieve your goals, you think about what you don’t want to have happen—the worst-case scenarios—to create solutions.

Inversion

Let’s say you have a meeting at your radio station because you want to create more innovation. You break out the whiteboard and start thinking about all the ways the station can innovate. This inevitably leads to innovation by addition—whether it’s new programming features, a new style of music or hiring a new jock.

But what if, in the meeting, you spend your time thinking only about what obstacles are getting in the way of innovation?

It seems we always try to add the new layer positively rather than thinking about all the layers we created that are actually negative.

How do we increase our midday numbers? Let’s add more features! But if we think of this in terms of inversion, or in reverse, we should consider whether or not the existing features are truly adding value and brand depth. Or, are they just creating clutter and an obstacle? We need to also consider the ripple effect of the additions we make. An additional feature means additional promos.

If the feature does add value and brand depth, it should stay. But it should always be considered through that filter. And maybe in this case, perhaps removing the existing feature(s) is the better move.

Business magnate Warren Buffett is a big fan of the inversion technique. Rather than saying “How can I make money,” Buffett would say “How do I never lose money?”

Warren Buffett Inversion
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett is a big fan of the inversion technique.

Buffett flips the mindset. Instead of thinking about what he needs to do to make money, he thinks about the obstacles in the way of making money.

Seems to work well for him.

Inversion can be tricky, because it’s not how our brains have been trained to think. But when you use it to think about the opposite of what you want and then use that to create solutions, it’s powerful stuff.

Think about some of your biggest challenges and how you would approach them. Then flip the approach.

Buffett’s business partner, Charlie Munger, makes the case for inversion this way:

“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. 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.”

Or, if you’d prefer, just follow the inversion wisdom of George Costanza, made famous in the 1994 Seinfeld episode “The Opposite”:

George: “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s often wrong.”

Jerry:  “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

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