What would definitely work, if only you were allowed to do it?

Published: March 2024

Some problems are so hard—so intractable—that they have no solutions. Or so it may seem…

If you’ve been struggling to solve a particular problem, this two-question process could help.

A red Netflix DVD envelope from the late 1990s.

Two questions that unlock hard problems

First, ask the following question about your problem:

“What would definitely work if only I were allowed to do it?”

Write as many answers as possible, ignoring the voice in your head telling you why they are impossible, infeasible, or not allowed. (We can deal with that later.)

Now, for each of your answers, ask the following question:

“What’s preventing me from doing that? What would have to give to make it happen?”

Invert, always invert

The questions are useful because they prompt us to remove the constraints—real or imagined—and tackle our problems in reverse.

Inversion of this sort was a favorite strategy of Charlie Munger, who often quoted the advice of German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi:

“Invert, always invert.”

Inversion works because some problems feel unsolvable because of their constraints. In such cases, you don’t need a smarter solution but a simpler problem. You need to break rules and norms and make things easier for yourself.

The questions are also useful for a second reason: winning solutions are hard to come by. By starting with a definite, obvious solution, you solve the most difficult part. The biggest bottleneck in most businesses, for example, is making something that a lot of people desperately want. If you begin with something that people definitely would want, you have solved the biggest bottleneck. Then, you just need to find a way to make the solution acceptable.

“Cheating” your way to a solution—four examples

When we think of disruptive companies, breakthrough successes, or creative solutions to impossible problems, there is often an element of rule-breaking. We’ll end with four examples of this thinking in action:

  1. How could a 1997 startup with 30 employees enter and dominate the $16 billion home video rental market? An obvious solution would be to reduce rental fees and improve the availability of the latest movies. But something would have to give. By removing the customer’s ability to drive to a store and choose what they wanted to watch that night, Netflix became the Blockbuster killer—then dominant force in streaming…and then a verb!

  2. How could a new airline beat the monopoly of the incumbents? An obvious solution would be to sell flights at a fraction of the price. But something would have to give. By removing almost every feature that was traditionally included in the ticket price, Ryanair became Europe’s largest carrier.

  3. How could a company penetrate Microsoft and Apple’s stranglehold on the laptop market? An obvious solution would be to create a fast, easy-to-use laptop that costs a fraction of the price. But something would have to give. By removing local storage and processing power—and running only a browser OS—Google’s team developed the Chromebook.

  4. How could a free website become the largest reference work in history? An obvious solution would be to let anybody add to it. But something would have to give. By removing the traditional gatekeepers—and giving access for free—Wikipedia became one of the most referenced websites in the world.

In the examples above, the companies “cheated” by choosing a goal that would work, and then allowing themselves to remove the traditional constraints of their industries.

Likewise, the two questions above work well with our clients, whose constraints are often self-imposed.

To take a practical example, removing the “Select a subscription plan” step from the funnel of one SaaS client increased conversions by 18%.

Once we discover what the clients’ visitors would love, we get great breakthroughs by challenging the clients’ objections to providing those features. It’s easier to change a company policy than it is to change what the visitors want.

Is there something that would definitely work for your business—and hugely grow your sales—if only you allowed yourself to do it?

What’s preventing you? What would have to give?

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