Reversal (Inversion) as a creative problem solving technique

Reversal (Inversion) as a heuristic method to stimulate creativity

1. Authors

Carl Jacobi, Alex Osborn, Bob Eberle, John R. Dixon, Charles Thompson, Edward de Bono, Anatoliy Esaulov, Genrikh Bush, Genrikh Altshuller

2. History

Іnversion reflects the universal laws of the structure and evolution of the world. That is why inversion as a general and effective way of thinking has been used by East and West philosophers, scientists, and innovators throughout history.
Lao Tzu (VI-V centuries B.C) believed that everything in the world and human behaviour itself consists of opposites and therefore it is necessary to consider the reverse side of things, change up and down, mentally turn them inside out and upside down.
Sophists (5th century BC) used inversion as a figure of speech, chosen to produce a rhetorical effect.
Stoics (I –II centuries) used the technique Premeditatio malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”) by consciously imagining the negative side of things and the worst-case scenario, allowed to develop measures to prevent and remove the danger and resilience in the face of uncertainty
German scientists Carl Jacobi (1804 – 1851), made significant contributions to mathematic and mechanics by inversion technique. He solved problems by using the simple strategy of “man muss immer umkehren” or in other words, “Invert, always invert.”

Alex Osborn a pioneer of the creative thinking movement, included in his Checklist (1953), Reverse technique: Transpose positive and negative? How about opposites? Turn it backwards, upside down, inside out? Reverse roles? Turn tables? Turn other cheek?
Bob Eberle (1971) generalized Osborn Checklist and developed his proper method SCAMPER with Reverse technique suggesting the following questions: What would happen if you reversed this process or sequenced things differently? What if you try to do the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do now?….
John R. Dixon (1966) considered inversion as an effective method of Design Engineering and inventive creativity. In his opinion, inversion is the simplest and most effective method of overcoming psychological inertia, gaining a new position and generating new points of view on solving a problem.
Edward de Bono (1970) proposed The reversal method as one of the effective Lateral Thinking Techniques. In the reversal method, one takes things as they are and then turns them around, inside out, upside down, back to front. Finally, the main purpose is provocative. By making the reversal one moves to a new position.
Genrikh Bush (1972) has formulated the “Method of heuristic inversion” for the inventors. Genrikh Altshuller in his methodological system TRIZ (1973) one of the 40 inventive principles called “Do It in Reverse”:
a. Instead of the direct action dictated by a problem, implement an opposite
action (i.e., cooling instead of heating).
b. Make the movable part of an object, or outside environment, stationary —
and stationary part moveable.
c. Turn an object upside-down.
A.F. Esaulov (1978) identified inversive and dialectic thinking and understood it as the ability to think in contradictions.
Charles Thompson (1992) described the Problem Reversal method its grounds and steps in his book What a Great Idea.

3. Description

Inversion Technique is to look at a particular problem from the opposite point of view, turn a problem on its head and consider the exact opposite of your desired result.
Instead of focusing on what you want to happen, you think about what you don’t want to happen and plan to avoid this.
It is a unique approach to problem solving which starts with imagining the worst-case scenarios and then using those scenarios as the basis for developing solutions.
In the most general sense, inversion is a vision of the opposite side of things, solving the problem from the end, reversing the main directions of action, parameters, materials, energy, information, work processes, form, properties, space and time, functions and structures, replacement of symmetry with asymmetry, moving part with stationary part, and vice versa.
Reversal as a problem-solving technique can free you from old ways of looking at problems. While a reversed challenge sometimes sounds odd and illogical, it often sparks much more creative solutions.

4. Main functions

1. Reversal is the best way to solve relatively complex problems by changing the direction of your thought and generating new creative solutions.
2. A radical method of overcoming psychological inertia, stereotypes and the traditional outlook, reframing your thinking, finding alternate perspectives and novel ideas that can solve the problem.
3. Reversal is a good tool for improving a product or a service.

5. Methodological and theoretical grounds

The reversal method and techniques of its application are based on the principles of dualism, duality and contradiction. Inversion is an elementary cell of thinking, a universal and primary mechanism of creativity and meaning creation.
Lao Tzu stated, “Therefore being and non-being give birth to each other. Difficult and easy accomplish each other. Long and short form each other. High and low, distinguish each other. Sound and tone harmonize each other
Before and after follow each other as a sequence. Realizing this, the saint performs effortlessly according to the natural Way without personal desire, And practices the wordless teaching thru one’s deeds.
A focused view of the opposite pole of things completes the integrity of the system, highlights its centre and the optimal, shortest and most effective way of action.
Inversion and multiple inversion includes changing the poles of interaction, reverse external and internal, as well as the alternate use of opposite mechanisms and techniques: analysis and synthesis, connection and disconnection, complication and simplification, identification and removal.
From a psychological point of view, the method allows overcoming fixations and «fixed mental sets” that impedes problem-solvers from approaching problems from a fresh perspective and from finding novel solutions.

6. Basic steps

Step 1Identify the problem and define it clearly.
Step 2. State your problem in reverse, changing a positive statement into a negative one or giving a negative problem a positive outcome.
Don’t ask how the problem can be solved, but rather ask which causes could make the problem worse or how the opposite effect can be achieved.
Simply ask “How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect?”
Example: If you want to increase sales, think about decreasing them.
Step 3. Reverse objects or situations in some way.
Look at the problem from the opposite viewpoint. If male, view from the female viewpoint, and vice versa. Instead of looking up at it, look down. Look from the inside instead of at the outside, and so on. Change the direction or location of your perspective. You can reverse the basic concept, principles, physical elements, attributes.
Step 4. Doing what everybody else doesn’t. Use a list of pairs of opposing actions, which can be applied to the problem.
Just ask yourself: “What if I ……..” and plugin each one of the opposites.
Step 5. Collect ideas
All ideas offered to worsen the problem are usable. None of the suggestions can be thrown out.
Step 6. Reverse ideas
All gathered inverse ideas are now discussed and reversed to be transformed into real solutions to the actual problem.
Step7. Evaluate solutions
Evaluate the solutions and determine whether or not the added perspective garners an answer to the original problem or challenge. All solutions are now evaluated and the feasibility of those ideas is assessed.
Step 8. Turn defeat into victory or victory into defeat. If something turns out bad, think about the positive aspects of the situation.

7. Group technique

1. Have the group generate a list of challenge statements and record them at the top of a flipchart page.
2. Generate a list of 6-10 assumptions about the idea (the more basic the assumption the
more likely you are to create a breakthrough idea).
3. For each assumption, ask what is the reverse of the assumption and list new insights.
4. Have the group use these insights as a springboard to generate new ideas.

Reverse thinking

As the term ‘reverse thinking’ itself suggests, instead of adopting the logical, normal manner of looking at a challenge, you reverse it and think about opposite ideas.
However, don’t spend too much time on reverse idea generation – about 10 to 15 wrong ideas is fine.
After one session is over, you can either continue in the reverse idea atmosphere with a new challenge or else do the reversal once more to make it stronger.

8. Advantages

1. Reversal is a simple but surprisingly powerful method that kicks you out of your current rut but easily finds another view
2. This technique is very good for finding new ideas as a result of the fact that negative ideas are easier to find than positive ones.
3. Reversal is a good technique to try when it is difficult to identify solutions to the problem directly.
4. This technique helps to generate novel and breakthrough ideas when ideas are listed then assumptions are systematically reversed
5. The ideas that are created from this reversal technique can lead to surprisingly valid and opportunistic results.
6. Problem reversal focuses on solving an identified problem by turning it on its head and encouraging you to think about it differently.


Imagine that you want to improve the response of a service centre. Using Reversal you would ask ‘How would I reduce customer satisfaction?’. After considering this question you might give the following answers:
• Not answering the phone when customers call
• Not returning phone calls
• Have people with no product knowledge answering the phone
• Use rude staff
• Give the wrong advice
After using Reversal, you would ensure that appropriate staff members were handling incoming phone calls efficiently and pleasantly. You would set up training programs to ensure that they were giving accurate and effective advice.

Charlie Munger American businessman and investor suggests that thinking about and planning for the opposite of what you want to happen could give you a competitive advantage in anything you do.
“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backwards. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there?