Our local ski hill is about twenty minutes away by car. Being fair weather fans of the activity we like to check the snow and weather reports before heading out. They offer stations at three levels of the mountain from the base, mid-mountain, and the summit. Usually, the temperatures reflect that the cooler temperatures are seen at higher elevations. However, this isn’t always the case. From time to time, even in the deepest and darkest days of winter, the upper mountain temperatures can be considerably warmer than those down below. When this happens it’s known as an inversion. The normal order of things is upside down. It’s inverted. It’s noticeable when things are out of order or not as we’re used to seeing them. It catches our attention. An inversion acts like a magnet and draws people from the depths of the valley to the peak of the summit to enjoy the sunshine and warmer temperatures.
Inverting things is a tool we can use to help us make sense of concepts. Sometimes we can work backwards into defining something by starting with the opposite. We start by determining what something isn’t, first. Using inversion helps us see what’s undesirable. Once this is determined, we can find what’s the opposite to help steer us towards our desired outcome. Using inversion is a HOT tactic where HOT is Heads Or Tails. Where you’re not able to clearly define one side of a coin start by flipping it over and detailing the opposite, or other side. By identifying what is not present, we work ourselves into defining what is there. We’re working backwards to make progress. By figuring out what we don’t want, we move closer to what it is we do want. The HOT Tactic can extend into a strategy to guide improvement. If we’re not sure of direction, if we’re unclear as to next steps, start with identifying what you don’t want. Worry less about getting direction perfect and more about what should be excluded. I’m not sure what to order but I know I don’t feel like fish this evening. Move towards what you do want by figuring out first what you don’t want. Last week, we introduced a book about constraints. Its subtitle is Turn Obstacles into Opportunity and reflects the usage of the idea of inversion. By turning the idea of something like constraints and obstacles as being impediments upside down, we can reframe them as being helpful and serving.
A well known episode from Seinfeld during its fifth season introduces us to “Opposite George.” George acknowledges that his gut behaviors tend to get him in trouble. Jerry encourages George to try doing the opposite of any initial impulse he has. Jerry says, “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” The balance of the episode showcases George doing what seems to be outlandish and nonsensical behaviors which all meet with great success. George morphs from loser to leader in his life immediately by doing the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do. Opposite George is using inversion to figure out what to do. He’s doing what Epictetus suggested to his students several thousand years ago where he offered “Try the opposite,” as a response to the question, “What should you do when you are fighting and fighting against a problem?”
In The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman asks, “What if you did everything wrong? What if you got the worst possible outcome? This is a problem-solving technique called inversion, and it’s helpful in learning the essentials of almost anything. By studying the opposite of what you want, you can identify important elements that aren’t immediately obvious.” We may not know what to do to learn a new skill, but can we think of what won’t work? What will absolutely not give us what we’re after? Consider what floats your boat and what gets your goat? Both are two sides of the same coin. Answering one, helps you determine the other. If we’re not sure about what we want, we can start with considering what we don’t want. What things irritate us or make us mad? These may be easier to identify than those we value. Identifying what frustrates us is a clear clue as to finding what is important to us. We’ll tend to value the opposite of that which frustrates us?
Inversion is a timeless tactic. In the thirteenth century, Meister Eckhart invited people to embrace inversion when teaching “where you think you are weak you are strong, and where you think you are strong you are weak.” He flipped the story on how we typically see ourselves in order to introduce us to greater personal insights. Investment legend, Charlie Munger, in a commencement speech at Harvard in 1986 used inversion as the main theme of his talk. Instead of offering the usual feel good approach of offering a prescription for success and happiness, Munger built his address around behaviors that guarantee a life of misery. By considering the opposite of what most of his listeners likely wanted, Munger was able to steer them in a constructive direction.
Munger offered four “prescriptions” for a Life of Misery. The first prescription for a life of misery according to Munger was to be unreliable. “Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you.” Competence may be somewhat subjective and dependent on the context and role we’re considering. Munger, by pointing out the problems that are faced by those that are unreliable, indirectly points us to what is desirable. Independent of our skill, if we fail to show up when we say we will, we’re useless. Munger helps us see that at its root, competence involves reliability. Do you show up where and when you are supposed to? Do you do this reliably? Coupled with showing up is performing reliably. Can you do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it? Sport events have start times. Even the best in the world can’t show up when they feel like it. They are obliged to deliver themselves on someone else’s schedule. Musicians, actors, Olympians, all of us, are obliged to be somewhere at sometime to do something. If we fail at this, we fail at competence. Unreliability is a guarantee to not be taken seriously. Recognizing unreliability is a recipe for the dish of incompetence, we work our way to realizing that at the root of competence is reliability. Competent people do what they say they will, when they say they will do it. They are, at their core, reliable.
Like Munger’s approach, Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, serves as an example of a series of stories which represent the tool of inversion being used to offer insight. Gladwell writes of perceived strengths actually being weaknesses and vice versa. Education is considered an important function for democratic societies to offer. There are ongoing debates about how to improve a country’s education system with the general belief being a sound education system affords a country and its citizens a solid future. One direction that has been popular in recent decades is class size. Proponents advocate that smaller classes are better. A teacher is better able to offer support one on one with individual students when they’re responsible for less students. The general public overwhelmingly favors education systems reducing class sizes. Smaller class sizes require more teachers for a given set of students. Gladwell points out that in the US, the number of new teachers increased by over 250,000 during a short eight years from 1996 to 2004. This contributed to the spending per student increasing by more than 20%. Gladwell writes, “It’s safe to say that there isn’t a single profession in the world that has increased its numbers over the past two decades by as much or as quickly or at such expense as teaching has.” Yet, there’s no evidence to support the benefit of these smaller class sizes. Hundreds of studies have been done. Gladwell suggests 15% of these find statistical support for smaller classes while another 15% find students do worse in smaller classes. Another 20% of studies show no effect and the balance of studies show results too small to be statistically significant. In other words, there’s no basis for pursuing a policy of smaller student numbers per class.
At the root of the view that smaller class sizes are better is the assumption that children are competitors for a teacher’s attention. If one student receives attention and assistance, others aren’t. The larger the class, the less attention to distribute per student. This makes sense conceptually and parents happily advocate for the smaller class sizes as a result. However, the researchers that looked at the data from a perspective of inversion learned that attention from teachers isn’t what made students smarter. Students benefit as much or more from peer to peer support. A class populated with learners at a similar stage, asking similar questions, and learning the same way is what fuels learning best. With smaller classes, students are less likely (not more) to be surrounded by those similar to them. This is how smaller classes can produce worse results. Gladwell’s David and Goliath offers us a number of examples like class sizes that suggest that when we’re fixated on what feels like the obvious approach, inversion is an excellent tool to use to help us see other perspectives for our problems gaining useful insights. Our default across circumstances is to believe that more resources leads to advantages. More money is the sign of a better program. Better schools have smaller classes. However, when we can use inversion, we see the reality that more isn’t always better.
It’s worth noting that inversion is not being contrarian. It’s not being argumentative and just saying no or the opposite to whatever is being proposed. Inverting is a way to spur constructive thinking. It is taking a common approach and flipping it upside down to consider “what if?” Munger, Costanza, and Gladwell, all show us how inverting an idea can offer a fresh approach to things. Inversion is a helpful tool to assist in both strategy and decision making. Instead of investing your energies trying to figure out how to do something better, flip the problem upside down and ask how would we behave if we wanted to make this problem worse. From the answers to this question, we can determine what we don’t want to do. Using inversion can provide us with a completely new perspective which produces new options. At its root, inversion is an approach that may not steer us to being 100% correct, but it does help us become less wrong. Finally, inversion can be used to help us reframe our circumstances. We can leverage our limitations using inversion. Instead of posing what’s the problem, invert the question to ask what’s the opportunity? If we feel we’re being constrained by a limitation. Ask instead how can this ceiling become our floor?
Jeff Bezos applied the tool of inversion to Amazon’s strategic decisions when he worked to invert the typical question asked about predicting what will change in the future. Instead, Bezos prompts his team to ask “What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?” He considers this a far more practical question to consider. Those things around which confidence is high that they will remain important years down the road imply areas that warrant continued investment. Bezos is willing to invest in things useful today and tomorrow. To his inverted strategic question, Bezos wondered what will customers still want over time. He answered with low prices, fast delivery, and vast selection. It seems like a sound strategy that holds as true today as it did ten years ago.
Consider embracing the idea of using the mental tool of inversion to help you with a business challenge you may be facing. In drama circles, there’s a warm up exercise known as Fortunately, Unfortunately. In a group, a person starts the game by saying “Fortunately” and then offering a brief story of a positive event. The next person then starts their turn with “Unfortunately” and takes the story on a negative bent. This process repeats as long as participants can come up with creative material to keep things going. We can use the inversion of this game to try to convert challenges into opportunities by recognizing that “unfortunately” something negative has occurred but “fortunately” we can put a positive spin on it in order to reframe the situation constructively.
Consider embracing the idea of using the mental tool of inversion to help you with a business challenge you may be facing. Try turning a topic upside down in order to gain a new perspective. Invert some common questions you face in your business. Flip who should we hire to what types of people do we not want working in our company. Consider asking not what business do we want to be more like and ask instead what kinds of businesses do we want to avoid behaving like. Invert to whom should we be selling to what kinds of customers do we want to avoid. Instead of asking what kind of marketing initiative should we pursue, ask from what kinds of marketing do we want to steer clear. When confronted with a problem, instead of fault-finding, ask yourself in what way did I contribute to the circumstances in which I now find myself? Using inversion can turn our traditional thinking upside down and open the doors to seeing improved ways of doing things.