Inversion: Thinking About What Can Go Wrong

Inversion: Thinking About What Can Go Wrong

Our best laid plans have one fatal flaw. They typically assume the best case scenario. We expect things to be on time. We expect to avoid any roadblocks. We expect to have thought of everything. We expect a lot of little things to go just right.

Except that’s not how it works at all. It never goes according to plan. Often it’s quite the opposite. Everything that can go wrong probably does and that’s normal. No matter who you are or how smart you are, your plans will go awry.

It’s just the way of the world, but it’s also an opportunity. An opportunity to think differently when it comes to plans and problems and failure. Instead of thinking about how everything will go smoothly and flow from point A to point B, think about what is going to prevent that from happening.  Instead of thinking forward, think backwards. Put on the pessimist hat and think about what can go wrong.

It sounds counter intuitive, but it only improves your ability to execute. This is one of many mental models that Charlie Munger, business partner of Warren Buffet at Berkshire Hathaway, explores in his book Poor Charlie’s Almanack. He calls it inversion:

“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.”

The idea is simple, but we never do it. We think of things in the usual way, we think forward. What do I have to do to accomplish X. But we hardly ever think backwards. What do I have to do to not accomplish X. These are the things you want to avoid and while they may seem obvious, you’d be surprised by how many of them you overlook.

This idea of thinking forwards and backwards, of inverting your thinking to see things from different perspectives, is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal.

Thinking forwards leads to solutions. It helps you devise how to accomplish your goals, but it also adds complexity. You create your plans, but the more you plan, the more complicated things can get. It’s also very easy to get carried away in the planning stage. Forward thinking may get you results, but it’s not fool-proof. It’s an additive approach.

On the other hand, inverting your thinking, thinking backwards, is subtractive. It’s an act of avoidance, one of preventing the obvious and common mistakes. It is recognizing the things you know could happen and ensuring they they don’t.

So instead of over-planning in any given situation, you’d be better off at least making sure you’re not making the stupid mistakes. The things you know you shouldn’t be doing.

People calculate too much and think too little.Charlie Munger

Thinking about problems in different ways, from different angles, gives us a better understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. We get a fuller picture of what we’re facing. Inversion is not a silver bullet. Things will go wrong, no matter how much we plan and prepare, but by thinking backwards, we’re at least avoiding the common mistakes.

Moreover, when things go wrong, we are increasing our awareness for next time. We begin to notice the usual issues we face. In the future, we can take that experience and be even more attuned to possible pitfalls. Our ability to think backwards only gets better with experience.

The next time you’re facing a problem or situation, try to invert your thinking. Try to think both forwards and backwards. After all, a good way to win is not to lose.