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15 Sep 2011

Inverted Problem-solving Technique

The inverted problem-solving technique (IPT) involves looking at the opposing aspects of a problem. To see IPT’s value it helps to write down the problem. In simple terms, if the problem involves “doing something,” IPT suggests exploring “not doing it” as a potential solution (or “to do it” if “not doing it”).

For instance, I first ran across it as a child when I wanted to learn to play. The book, Complete Chess Course, by Fred Reinfeld had a section called “The Nine Bad Moves.” Rather than immediately teach you good moves, Reinfeld had you learn what not to do. Later, I applied the concept when I developed my training methods: I first identified what I didn’t like about training that I took.

We often spend extensive time evaluating and determining the best solution. In reality, there are often many solutions. Thus, IPT suggests that we look at avoiding a bad decision as a potential solution rather than trying to determine the best. For example, in change initiatives and technology rollouts not only ask, “What can we do to make this successful?” but also ask, “What shouldn’t we do?” Too often people only focus on what needs doing to solve the problem.

Additionally, IPT helps us explore problems deeper by qualifying its various parts. Often, we only ask, “Is this part causing the problem?” Such an evaluative approach limits us to “yes/no answers.” Rather than ask “Is this department hindering the rollout?” ask, “How is this department hindering it?” and “How isn’t it?”

We can even apply these questions to the problem itself (Why is it a problem? Why isn’t it?). After all, it’s not unusual to find people working on the wrong problem. Moreover, the answers themselves will help us find solutions.


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