Opposite Day: the Power of Inversion

  • Date 28th April 2021
  • Author Caspar Yuill
Opposite Day: the Power of Inversion

The other weekend, my partner and I were driving to Hill End for a weekend away without phone reception and very few people around. When we got to the tiny town of Sofala, on the foothills of Central NSW, I knew we were about an hour away. But all of a sudden, the estimated time of arrival on Google stopped moving. We’d taken a wrong turn. When we looped back to Sofala, 40 minutes later, we were 100% positive of the right turn to take. 

This is a (frustrating) demonstration of inversion thinking. In doing the wrong thing, it was ultimately very clear what the right thing was. (I just wish we’d recognised that 35 minutes earlier.)

To understand inversion thinking, imagine you’re trying to get from Sydney to Newcastle. One way to do that would be to find the exact path on Google Maps. Another would be to ask yourself “how would I not get there?” Well, you wouldn’t go south or west. You wouldn’t take the M31 or the M4. So, therefore, you should head north via the M1. If you continued on this way, thinking through all the ways you wouldn’t get somewhere, eventually all you’d be left with is how to get there.

Clearly, this isn’t an efficient way to tackle a simple problem, like directions. But for complex problems, inversion thinking often helps you avoid trouble. Or as this article called it, it’s like a stupidity filter.

Avoiding stupidity or failure first is a far quicker way to success than planning forwards for excellence. The neat thing is that inversion goes deeper than that. Like my roadtrip, by avoiding all the ways you can’t do something, all you’re left with is the way to do it.

So, if you’re confronted with a highly complex problem, like improving innovation in a company or reversing sales of a declining product, it might be worth asking what not to do first. At AFFINITY, we’ve even baked this kind of thinking into our methodology for delivering client outcomes. And if you do find yourself driving to Hill End, turn left at Sofala, not right.