Tag: Inversion

Produce More by Removing More

Produce More

Aristotle talked about three kinds of work: theoretical, practical, and poetical. The first searches for truth. The second is practical with an objective around action. The third, however, is lost in our modern culture. The philosopher Martin Heidegger called this “bringing-forth.”

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown describes this as an essentialist trait.

This is how the essentialist approaches execution: “An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more— by removing more instead of doing more.”

We rarely have the time to think through what we're doing. And there is a lot of organizational pressure to be seen as doing something new.

The problem is that we think of execution in terms of addition rather than subtraction. The way to increase the production speed is to add more people. The way to get more sales is to add more salespeople. The way to do more, you need more — people, money, power. And there is a lot of evidence to support this type of thinking. At least, at first. Eventually you add add add until your organization seeps with bureaucracy, slows to an inevitable crawl, centralizes even the smallest decisions, and loses market share. The road to hell is paved with good intentions with curbs of ego.

Rather than focusing on what to add, the Essentialist, McKeown argues, focuses on “constraints or obstacles” that need to be removed. It isn't about adding, it's about subtracting. I found this interesting to think about in the context of Ben Horowitz's distinction between good and bad organizations.

But how can we re-orient around what to remove? Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less offers three ways:

1. Be Clear About The Essential Intent

We can’t know what obstacles to remove until we are clear on the desired outcome. When we don’t know what we’re really trying to achieve, all change is arbitrary. So ask yourself, “How will we know when we are done?”

2. Identify the “Slowest Hiker”

Instead of just jumping into the project, take a few minutes to think. Ask yourself, “What are all the obstacles standing between me and getting this done?” and “What is keeping me from completing this?” Make a list of these obstacles . They might include: not having the information you need, your energy level, your desire for perfection. Prioritize the list using the question, “What is the obstacle that, if removed, would make the majority of other obstacles disappear?”

When identifying your “slowest hiker,” one important thing to keep in mind is that even activities that are “productive”— like doing research, or e-mailing people for information, or rewriting the report in order to get it perfect the first time around— can be obstacles. Remember, the desired goal is to get a draft of the report finished. Anything slowing down the execution of that goal should be questioned.

(The slowest hiker is a reference to Herbie in the business parable The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. More generally it can be thought of as the question what is keeping you back from achieving what you want? “By systematically identifying and removing this constraint,” McKeown writes, “you’ll be able to significantly reduce the friction keeping you from executing what is essential.”)

3. Remove the Obstacle

… The “slowest hiker” could even be another person— whether it’s a boss who won’t give the green light on a project, the finance department who won’t approve the budget, or a client who won’t sign on the dotted line. To reduce the friction with another person, apply the “catch more flies with honey ” approach . Send him an e-mail, but instead of asking if he has done the work for you (which obviously he hasn’t), go and see him. Ask him, “What obstacles or bottlenecks are holding you back from achieving X, and how can I help remove these?” Instead of pestering him, offer sincerely to support him. You will get a warmer reply than you would by just e-mailing him another demand.

If you're a manager or team lead, another thing starts to happen when you start removing obstacles. Not only does the output of the team increase but you'll find that people like working with you a lot more.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less will help you sift the signal from the noise and focus on what really matters.

Charlie Munger on the Value of Thinking Backward and Forward

One of the five simple notions to solve problems is the concept of inversion. To solve problems we need to look at them both forward and backward.

But how does this look in practice?

Let me give you an example that Charlie Munger gave during a speech.

Munger liked to give his family little puzzles. And one of the puzzles he gave his family was:

There’s an activity in America, with one-on-one contests, and a national championship. The same person won the championship on two occasions about 65 years apart.

“Now,” I said, “name the activity.”

Any ideas? How would you answer this?

“In my family,” Munger said, “not a lot of light bulbs were flashing.” Except for one.

I have a physicist son who has been trained more in the type of thinking I like. And he immediately got the right answer, and here’s the way he reasoned:

It can’t be anything requiring a lot of hand-eye coordination. Nobody 85 years of age is going to win a national billiards tournament, much less a national tennis tournament. It just can’t be. Then he figured it couldn’t be chess, which this physicist plays very well, because it’s too hard. The complexity of the system, the stamina required are too great. But that led into checkers. And he thought, “Ah ha! There’s a game where vast experience might guide you to be the best even though you’re 85 years of age.”

And sure enough, that was the right answer.

Flipping one's thinking both forward and backward is a powerful sort of mental trickery that will help improve your thinking.

Charlie Munger: 5 Simple Notions that Help Solve Problems

In 1996, Charlie Munger gave a talk titled “Practical Thought about Practical Thought where he explained the success of Coca-Cola using the simplest, most fundamental academic models he could find. Ideas from the physical world, from biology, and from psychology and business.

Munger starts the speech by outlining five simple notions that help him quickly solve problems. His approach, combined with learning how to think, is very much worth downloading into your own brain and using as a recipe. While the wording Munger uses to describe his approach is different, it's very similar to the approach used by Elon Musk, Richard Feynman, and others.

1. Simplify

… it is usually best to simplify problems by deciding big “no-brainer” questions first.

2. Numerical Fluency

[this] helpful notion mimics Galileo's conclusion that scientific reality is often revealed only by math, as if math was the language of God. Galileo's attitude also works well in messy practical life. Without numerical fluency, in the part of life most of us inhabit, you are like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

3. Invert

Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. Call it the avoiding stupidity filter.

… it is not enough to think problems through forward. You must also think in reverse, much like the rustic who wanted to know where he was going to die so that he'd never go there. Indeed, many problems can't be solved forward. And that is why the great algebraist, Carl Jacobi, so often said: “invert, always invert.” And why Pythagoras thought in reverse to prove that the square root of two was an irrational number.

4. Study The Basics

You need to understand the big nuggets of wisdom in the three buckets of useful knowledge. You can think of the basics as a mental models approach.

Munger believes in using these regularly and in combination:

… the best and most practical wisdom is elementary academic wisdom. But there is one extremely important qualification: you must think in a multidisciplinary manner. You must routinely use all the easy-to-learn concepts from the freshman course in every basic subject. Where elementary ideas will serve, your problem solving must not be limited, as academia and many business bureaucracies are limited, by extreme balkanization into disciplines and subdisciplines, with strong taboos against any venture outside assigned territory. …

If, in your thinking, you rely on others, often through purchase of professional advice, whenever outside a small territory of your own, you will suffer much calamity.

This happens in part because professional advisors are often undone, not by their conscious malfeasance rather by troubles found in their subconscious bias.

His cognition will often be impaired, for your purposes, by financial incentives different from yours. And he will also suffer from the psychological defect caught by the proverb: to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

5. Lollapalooza Effects

And you need to watch out for when really big ideas combine.

… really big effects, lollapalooza effects, will often come only from large combinations of factors. For instance, tuberculosis was tamed, at least for a long time, only by routine combined use in each case of three different drugs. And other lollapalooza effects, like the flight of an airplane, follow a similar pattern.

***

Still Curious?  See how Munger applies these in this essay. Learn more about the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger by picking up a copy of Poor Charlie's Almanack and Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charlie Munger.

A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans

While we can learn a lot from what successful people do in the mornings, as Nassim Taleb points out, we can learn a lot from what failed people do before breakfast too.

Inversion is actually one of the most powerful mental models in our arsenal. Not only does inversion help us innovate but it also helps us deal with uncertainty.

“It is in the nature of things,” says Charlie Munger, “that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward.”

Sometimes we can't articulate what we want. Sometimes we don't know. Sometimes there is so much uncertainty that the best approach is to attempt to avoid certain outcomes rather than attempt to guide towards the ones we desire. In short, we don't always know what we want but we know what we don't want.

Avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance.

“For the Arab scholar and religious leader Ali Bin Abi-Taleb (no relation), keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.”

The “apophatic,” writes Nassim Taleb in Antifragile, “focuses on what cannot be said directly in words, from the greek apophasis (saying no, or mentioning without meaning).”

The method began as an avoidance of direct description, leading to a focus on negative description, what is called in Latin via negativa, the negative way, after theological traditions, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Via negativa does not try to express what God is— leave that to the primitive brand of contemporary thinkers and philosophasters with scientistic tendencies. It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination.

Statues are carved by subtraction.

Michelangelo was asked by the pope about the secret of his genius, particularly how he carved the statue of David, largely considered the masterpiece of all masterpieces. His answer was: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.”

Where Is the Charlatan?

Recall that the interventionista focuses on positive action—doing. Just like positive definitions, we saw that acts of commission are respected and glorified by our primitive minds and lead to, say, naive government interventions that end in disaster, followed by generalized complaints about naive government interventions, as these, it is now accepted, end in disaster, followed by more naive government interventions. Acts of omission, not doing something, are not considered acts and do not appear to be part of one’s mission.

[…]

I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them. Just look at the “how to” books with, in their title, “Ten Steps for—” (fill in: enrichment, weight loss, making friends, innovation, getting elected, building muscles, finding a husband, running an orphanage, etc.).

We learn the most from the negative.

[I]n practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid. You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures.

Skill doesn't always win.

In anything requiring a combination of skill and luck, the most skillful don't always win. That's one of the key messages of Michael Mauboussin's book The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing. This is hard for us to swallow because we intuitively feel that if you are successful you have skill for the same reasons that if the outcome is good we think you made a good decision. We can't predict whether a person who has skills will succeed but Taleb argues that we can “pretty much predict” that a person without skills will eventually have their luck run out.

Subtractive Knowledge

Taleb argues that the greatest “and most robust contribution to knowledge consists in removing what we think is wrong—subtractive epistemology.” He continues that “we know a lot more about what is wrong than what is right.” What does not work, that is negative knowledge, is more robust than positive knowledge. This is because it's a lot easier for something we know to fail than it is for something we know that isn't so to succeed.

There is a whole book on the half-life of what we consider to be ‘knowledge or fact' called The Half-Life of Facts. Basically, because of our partial understanding of the world, which is constantly evolving, we believe things that are not true. That's not the only reason that we believe things that are not true but it's a big one.

The thing is we're not so smart. If I've only seen white swans, saying “all swans are white” may be accurate given my limited view of the world but we can never be sure that there are no black swans until we've seen everything.

Or as Taleb puts it: “since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation.”

Most people attribute this philosophical argument to Karl Popper but Taleb dug up some evidence that it goes back to the “skeptical-empirical” medical schools of the post-classical era in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Being antifragile isn't about what you do, but rather what you avoid. Avoid fragility. Avoid stupidity. Don't be the sucker. Be like Dariwn.

Retrograde Analysis: Working Backward to Solve Problems

We've talked a lot about inversion — solving problems backwards. In this short video, grandmaster Maurice Ashley walks us through retrograde analysis, which is a method to solve game positions in chess by working backward from known outcomes.

To look ahead, it pays to look backwards.

After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn't recognize a second ‘the.'

The second time around you realize you missed the second the the first time. But if you read the sentence backwards, you'd catch it.

Doubling Bacteria

Ashley gives another example. Consider the doubling bacteria problem. Bacteria double every 24 hours. It takes 30 days to fill a lake. On what day was the lake half-full?

This problem is easiest solved backward. It becomes easy.

Cards

Finally, Ashley uses a card game. There are six cards in this game numbered 1 through 6. Whomever has the highest card wins. You pick a card and it says the number 2. I pick a card and offer a trade. Most people look at their card and say, 2 sucks. Looking only at this problem statistically, you're best to trade your card. However, assuming no trickery on my part, that may not the right move. To solve the problem, invert. If I had a 6 would I trade? No. What about the number 5? … Odds are I have a pretty crappy number if I want to trade.

Inversion and The Power of Avoiding Stupidity

Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his quote “All I want to know is where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there.” That thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, famous for some work on elliptic functions that I'll never understand. Jacobi often solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy: “man muss immer umkehren” (or loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”)

“[Jacobi] knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward,” Munger counsels.

While Jacobi applied inversion mostly to mathematics, the model is one of the most powerful mental models in our toolkit.

It is not enough to think about difficult problems one way. You need to think about them forwards and backward. Inversion often forces you to uncover hidden beliefs about the problem you are trying to solve. “Indeed,” says Munger, “many problems can't be solved forward.”

Let's take a look at some examples. Say you want to improve innovation in your organization. Thinking forward, you'd think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem by inversion, however, you'd think about all the things you could do that would discourage innovation. Ideally, you'd avoid those things. Sounds simple right? I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid' things today.

Another example, rather than think about what makes a good life, you can think about what prescriptions would ensure misery.

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance. 

While both thinking forward and thinking backward result in some action, you can think of them as additive vs. subtractive.

Despite our best intentions, thinking forward increases the odds that you'll cause harm (iatrogenics). Thinking backward, call it subtractive avoidance or inversion, is less likely to cause harm.

Inverting the problem won't always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. You can think of it as the avoiding stupidity filter. It's not sexy but it's a very easy way to improve.

So what does this mean in practice?

Spending time thinking about the opposite of what you want doesn't come naturally to most people. And yet may of the smartest people in history, have done this naturally.

Inversion helps improve understanding of the problem. By forcing you to do the work necessary to have an opinion you're forced to consider different perspectives.

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. The kicker? Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

Inversion is a Farnam Street Mental Model.