William Liao

March 12, 2021

"Invert, always invert"

To solve forward is to try to directly figure out how to achieve the result you’re looking for.

To solve backward is to try to solve for the opposite what you’re trying to achieve.

If you are like most people, you have been solving problems forward:

To make customers happier, you think about ways to that might make them happy.

If you’re trying to build a better product, you think about design changes and marketing tactics that might make the product more appealing. 

If you’re a sales leader looking crush next quarter, you think about how to deploy your team in a way that will dwarf last quarter’s earnings. 

The tendency to solve forward makes perfect sense — it comes intuitively and no one questions the approach when you bring it up in meetings. To only solve forward, however, is to deprive yourself of the insight that solving backwards has to offer.

German mathematician Carl Jacobi, who is known for his equation solving prowess and contributions to mathematics, famously described his strategy to solving hard problems in 3 words: “invert, always invert.” 

The famous investor and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Charlie Munger said of Jacobi’s views and the power of solving backwards: “… it is the nature of things that many hard problems are solved when they are addressed backward.” 

Consider that the breakthroughs and novel solutions you need await discovery when you do the counter intuitive thing, which is to pose the problem backwards: 

To make customers happier, to build a better product, or to skyrocket sales you might consider first asking how you would make customers miserable, how you would make your product offering disappointing, or how you would stunt sales performance and then systematically work address and avoid the things you come up with. 

When you think backwards and pose questions, yes, might make you or your colleagues flinch at first, it’s often easier to uncover a path to making things better for the people you aim to serve. 

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