One of my favourite topics is creativity. But not just creativity in general, but specific techniques that anybody can use to generate creative breakthroughs. One such technique is the reversal technique.

The reversal technique is simple to apply and it can be fantastic for creative breakthroughs – making decisions, solving problems, coming up with ideas, or shifting your mind. Let me demonstrate with a few examples, and then share how you might use the technique for your own creative breakthroughs.

The Reversal Technique for making decisions

I read a story about a man who had a job in a nice city. The job was fine, but later, because of a re-organization, a position opened up at the same company but in a different city. The position was offered to the man. Although the positions were similar, the position in the different city was $30,000 more than his current job. The decision was really whether he wanted to live in the other city for $30k more, or if he wanted to stay where he was currently living.

In this case, he used the reversal technique to help make a decision. He thought about the reverse scenario: if he was already in the other city making $30k more, would he move to his current city taking a $30k pay cut? In this reverse scenario, he realized, no, he would not move to his current city and take a $30k pay cut, so the decision was easy to move to the other city.

The Reversal Technique for solving problems

This scenario is borrowed from Edward de Bono’s book Lateral Thinking. The scenario is this: you want to take a nice bath after a long day of work. As you prepare the bath, you fill the tub with hot water, and then when there’s enough water, you fill the water with cold water to get the bath to the right temperature. As you sit in the bathtub, you notice that the mirror and the windows inside the bathroom have become foggy due to the steam.

What happens if you reverse some of the steps? Instead of filling the bathtub with hot water, fill it with cold water, and then adjust the temperature using hot water once there is enough water. You arrive at the same result (a bathtub at a warm temperature), but because you filled the bathtub with cold water first, there is no steam on the mirrors or windows in the bathroom.

The Reversal Technique for breakthrough ideas

I learned this technique from Barry J. Nalebuff’s book Why Not. One way to find creative solutions is to think about creative solutions to the problems you face. This is a classic way of finding a solution as you often have a problem and want to brainstorm different ways to solve the problem. Another way to find creative solutions is to take creative solutions you already know about, and then find problems to solve.

For example, take the creative solution of Uber which pairs cars that are otherwise sitting on the driveways being unused, with the demand of people who want to get from A to B. Where might unused inventory be matched with demand to create a business? AirBnB has done this with real estate. Other companies have done this with boats, large and specialized tools and equipment, workspaces, planes, and other expensive-to-own items.

Another way to use the reversal technique? To reverse the problem so it is a different one to solve. Imagine you accidentally drop something down a pipe. Your first thought might be: where can I find something long enough to reach down the pipe to grab what I dropped. The problem would be framed as “how can I grab what I dropped down the pipe?” But using the reversal technique, you can also frame the problem as “how can I get whatever I dropped in the pipe to come to me?” Framing the problem in this way gives you different solutions: maybe you can fill the pipe with water and if whatever you dropped floats on water, it would float to the top. Or you can use a strong magnet and from the sides of the pipe, lift the object to the top.

The Reversal Technique for shifting your mind

Perhaps my favourite and strongest use of the technique is shifting your mind. The reversal technique is simply a flip of the script that you sometimes automatically play through your head.

Imagine this scenario: your young child is eating dinner at the table. Suddenly, as they are playing with their food, they accidentally knock a glass of wine over. The glass breaks. Wine spills all over your carpet. Would you get angry at your child? Would you yell and scold them? If yes, consider the next scenario.

Your friend is eating dinner at the table. Suddenly, as they are playing with their food, they accidentally knock a glass of wine over. The glass breaks. Wine spills all over your carpet. Would you get angry with your friend?

If you were angry in the first, but not in the second, what exactly has changed?

My coworkers and friends always remark how calm I appear to be, whether a situation is stressful or not. I could be in some of the most stressful situations on the planet, but I would be calm as a cucumber. Why? I learned early on that if I panicked, it wouldn’t make a difference to the outcome of the situation. In fact, it might make it worse. And any time I encounter a stressful situation, I play the reverse scenario in my head: what would happen if I panicked and stressed about the situation – would things be better? The answer, inevitably, is no. So I never stress about things, rather, I focus on what I can control.