The Inversion Technique: The Critical Thinking Skill You Were Never Taught to Use for Project Management

By: Prasad Eswara, Senior Manager

As a career professional, I’ve been involved with many types of projects and enterprise level strategic initiatives. With each venture I have been part of or managed directly, a traditional project management methodology, such as PMBOK, Six Sigma, or Waterfall was the foundation and basis for delivery and execution. All of these methodologies have their respective advantages and disadvantages, and none are the perfect formula for success.

I was taught from the very beginning of my career to think forward and see the bigger picture – to think about how to solve and prevent problems and to always prepare for issues. What if I told you there is a different way of thinking and approaching project management and solving some of the biggest problems? What if I told you that there is a framework for thinking about how to solve complicated issues not just in an organization but in many other areas in life?

Well, there is! It’s called “the inversion technique.” What exactly is the inversion technique, you ask?

The inversion technique is an approach and way of thinking about what you want to achieve in reverse. It is a unique and counterintuitive approach to problem-solving which starts with imagining the worst-case scenarios – and then using those scenarios as the basis for developing solutions.

Essentially what you are doing is, instead of forward thinking about what you must do to get things done, you would think back about what you don’t want to happen.

Here’s how it works:

The way to use the inversion technique is to look at a problem from the opposite direction.

Imagine that you’re working on the most important project right now. How would you tackle it? Now fast forward six months down the line and assume the project has failed. Formulate a story or scenario in your head about:

• What went wrong

• How it happened

• What caused the project to fail

• What the missteps and mistakes were

In other words, think of the primary goal and ask yourself, “What could cause this to go so wrong?” The idea behind this thought process is to identify challenges and points of failure so that you can develop a plan to prevent them ahead of time.

Here is an example:

Mike is a manager at a large insurance company and needs to improve customer and member satisfaction. The organization Mike works for just launched a brand-new strategy to transform the customer experience by developing more customer-centric solutions. Part of Mike’s job is to come up with new and innovative ways to improve customer satisfaction, make the call center more efficient, and create a process that results in faster response rates and turn around time.

In the past, there have been numerous improvement initiatives that were undertaken to achieve this but those plans never really went anywhere, and nothing concrete was ever put into place. Mike knows this and is now motivated to come up with an actionable and executable plan. To do this, Mike schedules a series of meetings with his team to discuss and strategize ways to improve the overall experience. Mike acknowledges that the establishment of these meetings and the reemergence of these initiatives are a bit redundant for his team, so he decides that he would change it up a bit and put forth a new creative problem-solving approach. The hope is that this will bring a new dimension to the meeting, allow people to be more engaged, and bring out more substantial thought-provoking ideas.

So, to prepare for this team meeting, Mike thinks carefully about the problem and formulates the following problem statement:

“How do we improve the customer call center experience?”

Mike then reverses the problem statement to:

“How can we make the customer call center experience a more dissatisfying one?”

With that reverse statement, Mike notices that everyone on the teams starts getting involved in the discussion and an influx of feedback emerges. Here are just a few of the “reverse” ideas that his team came up with:

• Make customers wait on hold for a long period and forget about them

• Don’t listen to what the customer is saying and ask them to repeat their questions

• Transfer callers over and over again

• Be rude to the customer and get frustrated easily with their questions

• Tell the customer a support ticket was created and don’t provide the ticket number

• Tell the customer we will get back to them and not following through
Once these reverse ideas came to fruition, Mike is now armed with a long list of “reverse” ideas which will then be looked at to come up with potential solutions.

Here are a few solutions that emerged:

• Make customers feel welcome and listen actively to the inquiry

• Have call center representatives write down each question that is asked and repeat what they heard back to the customer to clarify what was asked – this shows the customer that you are listening to their concerns and are attentive

• Resolve customer inquiries effectively and efficiently, without putting them on hold

• Once a question or query is understood, identify who is best suited to help the situation, get in touch with the individual who has the expertise and bring them on to the call, introduce the customer to the subject matter expert (SME), and let the SME take the call from there

As you can see, by looking at the problem in reverse, the inversion brainstorming session unveiled an abundant amount of improvement ideas which can be quickly implemented.

How to use the inversion technique in your organization:

1. Identify a challenge and/or problem and write it down.

2. Reverse the problem or challenge by asking, “How could I possibly cause the problem?” or “How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect?”

3. Brainstorm the inversion problem to generate inversion solution ideas. Allow yourself to brainstorm these ideas in your head freely and don’t limit the ideas that come out.

4. Once you have brainstormed all the ideas to solve the inversion problem, now reverse these into solution ideas for the original problem.

5. Evaluate these solution ideas to see if you can identify a potential solution or attributes of a possible solution

As we tend to look ahead to the future specifically at how we want to achieve our goals, this may not always be the most effective way to avoid bad decisions and prevent us from succeeding. Instead of focusing on what you want to happen, apply the inversion technique to think about what you don’t want to happen and develop a plan to avoid it.

Inversion is a powerful thinking skill that could help you solve challenging problems more comfortably and make better and well-balanced decisions.

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