The Art of Solving Problems By Turning Them Upside Down

Posted on February 12, 2014


The majority of my consulting practice focuses on creating content marketing that generates demand and simultaneously builds my client’s digital brand reputation. However, I am often asked to advise on larger problems that threaten business partnerships, customer relations, or the company’s name and brand, i.e., a problem that bosses need solved, but are unsure how to respond.

An exercise I use when working through the client’s options is what I call turning the problem upside down. That is, not accepting the premise of the problem. Stepping back, and with an open mind asking,  “What would turn this disadvantage into an advantage?” Sounds like crazy talk, and maybe it is, but it works.

The Art of War

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is based on this idea. I’d like to give you a high level idea what this means strategically. Below are quotes from The Art of War with my take on how Sun Tzu’s advice aims to turn problems upside down.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
* Winning wars is not about battles.

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious,” and “He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.”
* Victory belongs to the general who choose the right battles to engage, instead of fighting every battle.

“Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.”
* An rash general is eager to show his awesome superiority, but by doing so he informs his enemy how to best prepare for victory over him.

“If you are far from the enemy, make him believe you are near.”
* In the game of Go, a player that makes a move which forces the opponent to respond, is said to have “sente”, or the initiative.

In most Go games, the player who keeps sente most will usually win. It is the same here. Most crisis are a result of temporarily losing control and being maneuvered into a reactive position. When you are forced into the position of having to respond, you are losing.

When looking at a problem don’t accept any assumption that implies the outcome is unchangeable. Be clear about what favorable outcomes would are the most advantageous; Even if those goals may seem wildly unreasonable under the current situation. Then ask. “What would need to change for that to be a tangible possibility,” and, “What resources do I control or influence I can direct that might expedite that change?”

The recipe is as simple as it is hard:

  • A problem definition that doesn’t accept any outcome as inevitable  +
  • A crystal clear picture of what success would look like +
  • brainstorming ideas that starts with the outlandish and works itself back to the doable
  • = Success.

Creativity and imagination are skills that requires constant exercising. I mention this because the only times this methodology fails to provide the best options to solve the problems is when there’s a failure of imagination.

If you understand this concept, that is awesome. However, if you are still a little fuzzy on what I’m driving at, don’t worry. I’ll be doing a follow up post with several real world problems that used this methodology.

I Don’t Have A Drinking Problem…

I’ll leave you with one of the most amusing examples of Upside Down Problem Solving by the late great Sam Kinison.

Shayne Michael’s biography shared: Once, after two shows and the following party, all his hotel mini bars ran dry. The hotel bar was locked and the manager didn’t even have the key. To solve the problem, Kinison, called a local limousine service and asked “All your limos have stocked bars, right?” When the limo service answered yes, Kinison ordered a fleet of limousines to restock the party.

What problem have you turned upside down, and what was the linchpin that transformed the problem into an advantage?

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