The Backwards Approach to Effective Problem Solving

May 5, 2023 4:12 PM

Tackling complex problems can be challenging and frustrating. In the midst of chaos, it's easy to get lost in data and struggle to find a solution before everything unravels. However, there's an unconventional approach that can make problem-solving more manageable: inversion. This unique way of thinking, with roots in philosophy and mathematics, can help you conquer the most overwhelming issues with more clarity and efficiency.

Meet Inversion: The Backwards Thinking Approach

Inversion is a problem-solving tactic that encourages thinking backwards from the desired outcome. It has its origins in ancient philosophical teachings and the field of mathematics, particularly in the concept of inverting matrices to solve equations. By borrowing this idea, inversion flips the traditional linear approach, where you start with a problem and work your way to the solution, and instead has you start with the end goal and work your way back to the beginning.

The beauty of inversion lies in its power to help you see what might be hidden when you're focused solely on moving forward. By working backwards, you can identify potential roadblocks, uncover innovative solutions, and gain a clearer understanding of the steps needed to reach your goal.

Diving into Inversion: Key Concepts

Inversion isn't just about thinking in reverse; it involves a mental shift and a deep understanding of its core components. Here are the key concepts involved in the inversion process, along with brief examples for each:

Inverted thinking

To embrace inversion, you need to change your mindset. It's about thinking differently from the norm and opening your mind to new possibilities. Inverted thinking requires you to be proactive in identifying obstacles and exploring alternative pathways. For example, instead of focusing on how to increase sales, consider what factors could be limiting sales in the first place and address those issues.

Desired outcome

The starting point for inversion is the desired outcome. By defining your end goal, you can focus on what truly matters and minimize distractions. Keep your eye on the prize and use this endpoint as a guiding light throughout the problem-solving process. A clear desired outcome could be reducing customer churn by 50% in the next two years.

Reverse engineering

Once you have your desired outcome, you'll work backwards to figure out the steps needed to reach it. This process, called reverse engineering, helps you break down the problem into smaller, more manageable pieces. By doing so, you can uncover hidden patterns and connections that may prove vital in your quest for a solution. In the customer churn example, you might identify key factors in customer retention, such as customer satisfaction, product quality, and pricing.

Negative visualization

Inversion also involves identifying potential pitfalls and obstacles that could derail your progress. By visualizing these negative scenarios, you can proactively plan to avoid them, putting yourself in a stronger position to achieve your desired outcome. Consider how competitors launching similar products or economic downturns might hinder your efforts to reduce customer churn.

Inversion in Action: Real-Life Examples

Many historical figures and businesses have employed inversion to great success. Let's take a look at some examples:

Charles Darwin

The renowned naturalist Charles Darwin used inversion to develop his groundbreaking theory of evolution. By working backward from the idea that species gradually change over time, he compiled evidence to support his assertion, dismantling the prevailing belief in creationism.

Benjamin Franklin

American polymath Benjamin Franklin was known to practice inversion in his decision-making process. When faced with a complex problem, he would list the pros and cons of various solutions and then work backward to determine the most favorable course of action.


In the corporate world, Amazon has thrived thanks to its customer-centric approach. The company starts with the end goal – delivering exceptional customer experiences – and works backward to develop the strategies and technologies needed to fulfill this vision.


Automaker Tesla has revolutionized electric vehicle technology by embracing inversion. The company began with the mission to make electric cars mainstream and has worked backward to develop innovative battery technologies, overcome infrastructure challenges, and bring affordable electric vehicles to market.

Applying Inversion to Your Complex Problems

Now that you understand the power of inversion, here's a step-by-step guide to applying it to your own complex problems:

  1. Define your desired outcome: Clearly articulate the end goal you want to achieve. Focus on the specifics; the more detailed, the better.
  2. Break it down: Work backward from your desired outcome, identifying the steps needed to reach that goal. Break these steps down into smaller, manageable tasks.
  3. Identify potential obstacles: Think about the things that could go wrong or derail your progress. Consider worst-case scenarios and develop contingency plans to avoid or overcome them.
  4. Reassess and adjust: As you work through the problem-solving process, continually reassess your progress and make any necessary adjustments. Always keep your desired outcome in mind and be open to changing course if needed.

To make the inversion process even smoother, try these tips for overcoming common challenges in specific situations or industries:

  • Practice patience: Inversion might feel counterintuitive at first, but stick with it. The more you practice, the more natural it will become.
  • Stay flexible: Be open to adapting your approach as new insights and information emerge.
  • Keep it simple: Don't overcomplicate the process. Focus on the essentials and avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

Inversion's Best Friends: Complementary Mental Models

Inversion works best when combined with other mental models that can enhance your problem-solving abilities. Here are a few examples of mental models that complement inversion:

First principles

First principles thinking involves breaking down a problem to its most basic elements and then building a solution from the ground up. By combining first principles with inversion, you can identify the essential components of a problem and work backward to develop a robust, innovative solution.

Ockham's Razor

Ockham's Razor is a problem-solving principle that suggests the simplest solution is often the best. When using inversion, applying Ockham's Razor can help you focus on the most straightforward path to your desired outcome, eliminating unnecessary complexities.

Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule)

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that roughly 80% of outcomes result from 20% of the causes. When working with inversion, keep the Pareto Principle in mind to prioritize the most impactful steps and actions, ensuring that your efforts yield the greatest results.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is an approach that focuses on understanding the relationships and interactions between the parts of a system. By applying systems thinking alongside inversion, you can gain a holistic view of the problem, revealing hidden connections and relationships that can inform your problem-solving strategy.

Embrace the Power of Inversion

Inversion has the potential to transform the way you approach complex problems. By thinking backward from your desired outcome, you can uncover new insights, avoid potential obstacles, and develop clearer, more effective strategies. Combined with other mental models, inversion can become a powerful tool in your problem-solving arsenal.

Don't shy away from trying inversion for yourself. As you practice and hone this skill, you'll find that complex problems become less daunting and more manageable. Embrace the power of inversion, and watch as your problem-solving abilities soar to new heights.

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