Reverse psychology is when you get someone to do something you want them to do by suggesting they do the opposite of it. One form of reverse psychology is to forbid someone to do something that you actually want them to do. This can be a common technique that parents use on their children.
Inversion thinking is analogous to using reverse psychology on yourself. Rather than being focused on what you need to accomplish, inversion thinking suggests you concentrate on what you should avoid. For example, a financial investor might be well-served to consider the downside of an investment rather than just being focused on the potential upside.
I’ve seen inversion thinking used effectively in a variety of situations. For example, companies that want to foster innovation often create incubators or incentives as encouragement to employees. However, inversion thinking suggests another technique: eliminate the existing processes and policies that discourage innovation.
In addition, it’s common for large project teams to hold a post-mortem analysis when a project has concluded or for a sales team to create a win/loss report when a deal has closed. A pre-mortem analysis happens before the start of a large project by imagining a less-than-successful conclusion of the project. The team members talk through possible reasons for failure, and come up with plans to prevent these potential problems. That’s inversion thinking.
Inversion thinking is also an effective way of dealing with confirmation bias. When I have a theory about how to solve a problem, rather than looking for supporting data, I decide what information might change my mind and then try to find someone who has that information. Inversion thinking helps me keep an open mind.
Another benefit to inversion thinking is it can help avoid unintended consequences by considering those consequences up front. The Cobra Effect reminds us that an attempt to reduce the number of snakes shouldn’t be based on a system which provides an incentive to breed more snakes. In retrospect, the unintended consequence was pretty obvious and might have been avoided with inversion thinking.
Said another way, inversion thinking encourages you to begin with the end in mind – you’re less likely to be surprised by what happens and you might have a new insight into the problem.
Have you tried inversion thinking?