Mental Models & Product #7: Inversion

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By now, you probably will have noticed that mental models can be powerful, individual (and collective) tools to help build up a sharper, methodical product thinker. I still, however, am on a mission to find answers to these questions:

  • How can I reduce my biases when evaluating data sets and looking at feedback?
  • How can I avoid falling into the trap of my cognitive biases?
  • How can I differ between noises and signals?

“Man muss immer umkehren”

The inversion perspective is focused on avoiding the least desired outcome instead of focusing on achieving the most desired one. This type of thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, where he would write the opposite of the math problem he was trying to solve, which helped him solve complex mathematical problems in an easier and quicker way.

This specific mental model helps us look at a problem objectively by looking at the opposing perspective. It forces us to uncover hidden beliefs about a problem we are trying to solve. Charlie Munger was an advocate for approaching a problem from the opposite view as the first step.

“All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” — Charlie Munger

In doing so, it will force us to consider everything that will prevent us from achieving our ultimate goal.

How does it work?

Inversion is almost similar to “reverse engineering”, which is a form of thinking backwards. This is the opposite of first principles thinking, which is a form of thinking forward, that is led by our simple truths. Thinking backwards in contrast is diagnostic and requires judgement.

“Thinking backwards involve looking for patterns, making links between seemingly unconnected events, testing possible chains of causation to explain an event, and finding a metaphor or a theory to help in looking forward.” — HBR

As Shane Parrish says, “avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance”. Let’s use an example to help us understand how to use inversion.

Alice was a high-performing employee when she was in the office, but now, remote work has got her procrastinating in all sorts of ways. She doesn’t like that and she wants to get back into the game. Her desired outcome is to be the most focused, productive, high-performing employee there is in her company. If she applies inversion to productivity, instead of asking herself “what can I do to solve this problem?” or “what strategy or process can I use to get me to be the most productive person in the world?”, she can instead ask herself “how can I fail as a productive human being?” or “what if I wanted to decrease my focus?”. From there, she can identify what’s actually causing disruption in her day’s time and energy.

She might discover from the question “how can I get distracted?” that she loves checking her phone for new notifications, or that she can’t resist a good Tik Tok video (or many). By understanding the problem through different angles, she can take a look at different strategies that will directly address the problem in different ways.

By looking through a lens of inversion, we can identify patterns, behaviours, and actions that can lead to failure in achieving a certain outcome. This can be done through:

  1. Write down the initial question.
  2. Challenge the question by asking the exact opposite of the question.
  3. Identify factors that will cause the opposite to be true.
  4. Build a strategy that will avoid all causes of the failure identified.

Invert, invert, invert.

When planning for a strategy-focused workshop with my scrum master, she always likes to ask me and the rest of my team: “What could go wrong in this workshop?

By identifying the worst-case scenario, we usually end up having a very productive discussion to identify a clear action plan for the workshop, as well as put in place guards and checks that will help us mitigate that worst-case scenario so that we don’t waste anyone’s time during the workshop (time is money, as the saying goes).

When it comes to optimizing or improving an existing feature or product as a whole, the most common strategy is to look at various ways to innovate on top of its existing functionality. Instead of ideating too much on customer enhancements, taking an inversion lens encourages us to look at its existing customer detractors.

By focusing on questions like “What’s blocking our customers from rating this feature set a 10/10?” and “What do our customers hate about this feature?”, we can focus on improving in the best way that directly addresses a problem that customers face. This method can uncover some surprising insights that we would not have been able to think about.

The music may stop.

A book that I’ve been reading is called “The Signal and The Noise” by Nate Silver, focused on why so many predictions fail and some don’t. In the first chapter, he focuses on the 2008 financial crisis. He talks about how one of the ways the financial crisis could have been avoided was if rating agencies had listened to the early warning signs regarding the upcoming housing bubble burst.

“They knew. I don’t think they wanted the music to stop.” — Jules Kroll

If we only focused on the intended outcome of what we want to achieve, we can easily get trapped within our cognitive biases. In the case of rating agencies during the financial crisis, there was a question of whether their bad ratings reflected avarice or ignorance.

Beyond being forced to confront the worst-case scenario within the intended outcome, this might be one of the most important tools in the product thinking toolbox.

The inversion mental model can help challenge a few of the most common mistakes a product manager makes:

(source: Silicon Valley Product Group and Airfocus)

#1: Working backwards from a preconceived solution aka. “solutionizing”.

I personally tend to fall into the trap of “solutionizing” too fast, too often. It is important that our vision does not cloud our insights. When we have a preconceived solution in mind, we may set specific parameters from the beginning that generate boxed-thinking patterns that are counterintuitive to innovation-focused thinking. Instead, when we do catch ourselves (our team, our stakeholders, or even feedback from our customers) starting to solutionize, we can take a step back by challenging our thought patterns by assuming that the solution will fail. This will encourage us to put our investigator’s hat back on, analyze data, test, and communicate, which will help us work towards the right solution that meets our customers’ needs.

#2: Confusing customer requirements with product requirements.

By being in the B2C product space, my job as a PM is to build an innovative product that will meet the needs of a wide range of customers. It can be easy for product managers to tend towards looking at marketing and sales functions or the customer to define the product to be built, but this is only if your product is a custom product or contract product development work. Product management is responsible for defining the right product. By using the inversion mental model, we should ask “what if we are making the lowest amount of sales right now and we have not built the right product for our customers yet?” This can help us create what’s feasible with what is desirable, to create products that solve real problems.

#3: Confusing innovation/novelty with value, or adding features instead of addressing a fundamental problem.

Being new is a feature, not a benefit.” It can be extremely tempting to launch a first-mover feature and beat every competitor to market. However, if it’s not solving an actual problem or adding perceivable value, it can be a huge waste of time and money. Our job as a product manager is to provide a clear vision and product strategy to our engineering teams so that we can work together to come up with truly innovative solutions that solve real problems. The innovation needs to be providing true customer value, and we can only do that by asking ourselves “What if our engineering team is totally unclear on the existing vision and strategy?” or “What if we are 100% misunderstanding our customers” so that we can identify our blind spots and work towards ways to get closer to the customer.

#4: Conflating metrics matching with product success.

When building a feature, we will almost always need to work with parameters, including budgets, “deadlines” (another topic for another day), and success metrics. At the end of the day though, while we may have met all the parameters in relation to the feature build, it does not mean that our product is successful. It is about whether our customers recognize the value of the product and want to continue using it. Instead of trying to run towards the finish line as a gamble, which may result in a huge loss of resources if there is no product success, it is important to ask ourselves “what if customers hate our new feature?” or “what if the new feature becomes a huge customer detractor” at the beginning of the build. This will help us think about ways to constantly recalibrate for the best user experience.

#5: Last but not least, confusing ourselves with the customer.

It can be all too easy for us to think of ourselves as the target customer than we really are — this will create traps such as overcomplicating the existing product, making the experience overwhelming and frustrating because we are not recognizing our blind spots. To keep us honest and on track, we need to constantly challenge ourselves on our existing assumptions. By following the assumption that our product is still extremely flawed, we will be reminded to keep putting our new ideas and products in front of our target audience while keeping an unbiased, open mind regarding their feedback and perspectives.

An inversion mental model is a powerful tool in helping us further understand the problem that we didn’t know we didn’t know:

“If you’re to take anything away from inversion let it be this: Spend less time trying to be brilliant and more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity.” — Shane Parrish

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Isabel Gan

Isabel Gan

Growth PM @ Unbounce | writing about all things product & mental models