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Inversion: the critical thinking style that can drive fresher idea generation.

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Critical thinking is an ever-evolving discipline and inversion is a style of thinking that can help to generate fresh perspectives.

Mathematicians use inversion all the time without even thinking; by switching an algebraic equation around, it may be easier to solve. The idea of ‘showing your work’ is also a key tenet of mathematics. Your eventual answer may be wrong but if you can show how you got there, it is a lot easier to pinpoint the wrong turns you took.

Inversion thinking challenges us to change our perspective and imagine a scenario in which our answer or solution to a problem, is incorrect. By being deliberately ‘contrary’, you can more easily see how things stand.

Inversion thinking encourages us to deliberately approach information in a contrary way. By envisioning an alternative scenario, or ‘playing devil’s advocate’, to actively challenge our biases and finding alternative sources, it makes our reasoning much stronger. It can also help us to determine fact from fiction and recognise how our own biases can stand in the way of us thinking critically.

The goal of inversion is not necessarily going to result in an answer but rather the knowledge that we have considered something from multiple angles, resulting in better decision making and more informed understanding.

Someone playing devil’s advocate may be frustrating if you are on the receiving end of it, but it can help us to generate ideas for what can be improved. It can help to spotlight errors and roadblocks that are not immediately obvious and give a fresh perspective on the status quo.

Many leaders use inversion in the workplace too. By working out what a ‘bad’ colleague or manager could look like, you can work to avoid employing someone who represents those qualities. By thinking of the worst-case scenario, you can plan to avoid those stumbling blocks.

The ‘rule of five’ is a useful approach to take, looking at the breadth of your sources, in addition to the depth. The ‘rule of five’ tasks you with finding:

  • Two sources of information that you are familiar with, ideally across different mediums such as articles and videos, rather than one or the other.
  • Two sources of information that you are neither comfortable nor familiar with, preferably ones that are in direct opposition to your own viewpoint, again in two different mediums.
  • A source of information that has a very specific, strong opinion on the matter in hand. This is likely to be quite a niche view.

By seeking out these multiple sources of information, you can then identify commonalities between sources, challenge your own bias and identify flaws in your reasoning. By actively practicing critical thinking, you will inevitably get better at it, making you less susceptible to fake news and misinformation.

Next time you are addressing a problem, instead of asking how to do something, why not ask how not to do it?

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