Thinking Outside The Box (2015)
Chapter 3: Lateral Thinking is the Key
Consider this list of statements. Don’t judge them initially, just read them.
Before the earth was round, it was flat.
Before the earth revolved around the sun, the universe revolved around the earth.
Before we all became aware of Einstein’s laws of gravity and his other theories, we were only aware that the universe was operating from Newtonian physics.
What changed? Did some god from heaven decide to change the rules on us? No, our perception -- our knowledge changed. And that changed the way we viewed everything. But more importantly, by changing the way we thought about the universe, it opened up an entirely new view of the universe.
In other words, someone, somewhere starting applying lateral thinking and in the process literally introduced the rest of us to a new universe.
Let’s take a quick look at the shape of the earth. Flat as a pancake. That’s what the ancient cavemen thought. For thousands of years, that was the standard norm. How could it be anything else? All you had to do was look around you. Except for hills and mountains, everything around you was flat.
Certainly, you can see why it was so easy to believe the earth was flat. It was the only common sense answer. If the earth were round, then that means someone on the opposite side of the earth of you were standing “upside down.” (Because you certainly weren’t!)
Then, consciously or not, Pythagoras, applied lateral thinking to this fact. He took this fact and his ideas slowly branched off of the facts as the world knew them.
The same laterally thinking was applied to the earth being the center of the universe to the earth revolving around one of a myriad of suns in the universe. Again, that’s lateral thinking in action.
What? You say you aren’t a Galileo, a Newton or an Einstein? Who among us is? But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply lateral thinking in your own life.
Before you jump total out of the box and think as if no box existed, you may want to test the waters, so to speak, simply by peering over the edge of the top of the box. In many ways, it can be considered an intermediate step between following the status quo and society’s standards in your decisions and jumping outside of the box.
Taking One Idea at a Time
It’s true that lateral thinking is a method of solving problems -- whether they involve a new way of folding your bed sheets or establishing world peace. What distinguishes itself from the other two form of thought process is that it not only allows for creativity, but also uses reasoning that isn’t always that obvious and may not be available if you use the traditional step-by-step logic.
First coined in 1967 by Edward de Bono, lateral thinking is neither the traditional vertical logic we learned in high school and college no the “horizontal” imagination you probably associate with individuals in the more creative imagination. The latter is usually characterized by the individuals being endowed with a myriad of ideas, but not really caring about the feasibility of their implementation.
Lateral thinking also differentiates itself from what’s known as critical thinking, which is mainly used in the judgment of the true value of statement or seeking errors in the thought process. By contrast, the more you learn about lateral thinking, the more you’ll discover is about learning and revealing the “movement value” of statements and concepts.
You’ll learn to discover those individuals who are employing lateral thinking because they’re capable of moving from one known idea to branching off new concepts from the known and creating new ideas. Every idea, in this form of thought processing, is creating as a branch of the original one.
According to deBono, the human mind uses four types of thinking tools:
- Idea-generating tools.
These are the tools that actually break into your current thinking patterns, regardless of how long you’ve been “stuck” in this mind rut. It’s the way you generate tools in order to jump start yourself out of outdated routine patterns and other ideas you may be holding about the status quo.
- Focus tools
These are valuable instruments intended to broaden your search parameters. The focus tools, as de Bono sees them, aid you in where to search for new ideas. Sometimes ideas just come to us out of the blue sky, but more often than not, we need to put some effort into searching for them. As you focus on one action or one invention, you mind suddenly, even abruptly, moves laterally and you realize that something that works for one innovation, can easily be transferred to another project.
- Harvest tools
These tools are properly named. These instruments of lateral thinking ensure that the ideas you’ve gathered are “harvested,” kept so that they can be used later. As you can imagine, harvesting, as it’s called many times, is used at the end of the thought process of thinking session.
Its goal is to “bank” any and all ideas that may prove valuable to apply to the problem later. It’s easy to overlook or skip this segment, thinking it’s not that necessary. But by ensuring that you harvest the ideas generated you’re free to use them at any time you deem necessary.
Harvesting also helps you to identify specific ideas that could be used immediately as well as those that have potential but may need some polishing and refining before you put them into use.
This process also generates some “common sense” thinking into the process. Very often, an individual or group generates excitement around an idea and implements it before its time. By using the harvesting approach, you can stash these ideas away instead of rushing into major commitments. It forces you to look at the long-term so you can make the most of your “yield” of new thoughts.
- Treatment tools
According to de Bono, treatment tools, in the long run promote and support the consideration of constraints found in the real world. These type of tools also take into consideration the resources with which you have to work as well as the support you may have. One of the most valuable of these tools is an exercise called “shaping.”
In this one, you take the raw idea and shape it to the specifications you need in your project or to solve your problem.
Examples of Lateral Thinking: From Edward de Bono Himself
Edward de Bono himself admits that many of the definitions and descriptions of lateral thinking on the internet today are nothing at all what he intended it to be. For some individuals trying to envision lateral thinking these sometimes conflicting descriptions may cause you confusion -- and rightly so.
But de Bono provides you with several eye-opening examples of lateral thinking and what it’s not through a series of simple phrases:
- You can’t dig a hole in a different spot by digging the same hole deeper and deeper.
Think about it. What de Bono means by this is that you’re not going to find the answer to your problem by just pushing harder in the same direction. Some industrialists have said the same thing by saying that the same type of thinking which caused the problem in the first place isn’t going to solve it. It may be time to start digging somewhere else or thinking in other directions.
If you’re serious about solving the problem or creating a different outcome than what’s staring at your right now, you’ll need to pick up the shovel again and start digging in another spot.
You’ve no doubt heard of the story of the man who is under the streetlamp in the middle of the night searching for the $100 bill he lost. A police officer found him and asks what he is doing. When the man tells the officer, the police office, generously offers to help.
After a short time, the officer asks the gentleman if he’s sure he lost the money here. The man, with a matter of fact shrug of his shoulders, replies, “Heck, no! I lost the bill over there.” He points to a darkened spot on the sidewalk.” Then as if anticipating the police officer’s next question, continues, “But it’s too dark to see anything over there, so I thought I would look here.” It’s the same idea. The gentleman refuses to “dig his hole” in a more profitable location. Instead he keeps digging under the light, thinking what he’s searching for will miraculously show up.
- You use lateral thinking when you need to change ideas and perceptions.
When you start thinking logically, you obvious begin with a specific set of circumstances and ingredients laid out in front of you. Think of a chess board with all the pieces in their proper places. If you know how to play and you’re pinned against another good player, you’ll immediately know that all the moves are logical. In fact, you can take your turn and be reasonably sure of what your opponent will do after that.
Many of the best chess players, then, thinking many moves in advanced, based on the logic of the game can outwit their opponent and ultimately win the game.
The problem with this type of thinking, de Bono contends is that the “chess pieces” we assume we have may not even exist. Imagine for a moment, a young toddler who comes upon a chess board and replaces the chess pieces, with his own toys. Now, the rules of the game have changed and the same logic of the traditional chess game don’t apply.
And in a very real sense, that’s what lateral thinking is all about. It’s not about playing the game with the same pieces. Rather it’s about changing the pieces and challenging your mind to look at the game differently.
In other words, its emphasis is on the perception of the game, not the actual implementation. The real beauty of lateral thinking is that it allows you to organize the world around you into pieces that work for you -- or pieces you need -- to be able to process them in a fashion which makes sense.
It might be obvious, but consider this for a moment. Breakthroughs into new ways of thinking are only possible when you toss the old assumptions aside. Once you get rid of “it’s the way we always thought,” then you can more clearly see how the pieces may fall into place differently. Like the chessboard with all the traditional pieces will produce the same response with us, you’ll respond differently if you place the green plastic “army men” of your youth on the squares. It’s then time to make new rules.
For example, consider the work of Pablo Picasso. Without a doubt, he broke all the rules of art when he began experimenting with his personal style. To some, his actions were sacrilegious. To others they were brilliant and allowed other artists to think in entirely new dimensions.
If you’re like most people, though, this is difficult to do. Your “default thinking” as some individuals call it is still “linear thinking.” Don’t despair, though, because the “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way-thinking” can be overridden.
Below are several marvelous examples of how to stamp out linear thinking right in front of your eyes and begin to see the world in more “lateral” arrangement.
Start off by listing all the assumptions in the problem.
Yes, this may seem simplistic, but it gets right to the heart of the problem. I knew a gentleman once who approached every electrical item that didn’t work with the same first step: Make sure that it really is getting the electric source it needs to work.
From a computer, to a lamp, to his car, he started with ensuring that whatever was powering that item was working. This was the first on his list of assumptions.
Whenever you’re presented with what seems like an unfixable problem, list everything you already know about the situation -- then take off from there. Make sure that none of these assumptions are wrong, then you can extend your thinking from there.
Verbalize the problem
Basically, this means ask yourself, how every other person would approach the problem. In this way you’re detailing in very specific steps the most obvious solutions to solving the problem.
Look these over and then ask yourself this critical question, “What if I couldn’t do this? Then what would happen?”
Now you’re beginning to make yourself open to lateral thinking. If you can’t solve the problems or get to the core of the idea through normal means, then you’ll have to come up with a different perspective. When you first begin this exercise, you may find yourself shrugging your shoulders somewhat puzzled. But after a bit, this approach will become second nature. You’ll truly see, at this point, that what others believed was a “problem” has now been transformed into an “opportunity” to see things from a different angle.
Question the original question
Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’re not finding the right answer because, ultimately, you’re not asking the proper question. According to de Bono your next question should be, “What if I could re-write the question?”
This helps your brain think differently and begin to see things from a different perspective. You’d be surprised how this works even with a simple search on the internet. If you continue to ask the same question into your search engine, you’ll continue to get the same sites to review over and over again.
The moment you ask the question from a different perspective or using a few different words, new, sometimes more relevant sites pop up. The next thing you know, you’re discovering more ideas. That’s exactly what happens when you dare to question the question you’re asking about the situation.
Start solving the problem from the end.
What? As crazy as that may sound, that’s exactly what you need to do at time in order to implement lateral thinking. More often than you can imagine, a problem is solved by working from the desired solution first.
Engineers often do this when they’re making a new invention. They call it “reverse engineering.”
What occurs the very moment you do this, you’ve stripped away all the details (at least the most cumbersome of them) which made you balk at the answer in the first place. Once you start at the end, your tendency to “overthink” the answer melts away.
Change your perspective of the problem.
Have you ever noticed when another person steps in to help solve the problems, somebody suddenly sees the pieces a bit differently. Why do you suppose this is? They are not already filled with the preconceived notions that you have from studying the problem so closely.
Think about how you use lateral thinking everyday in your home life. There’s a movement out there that encourages you to start using “hacks.” A hack is nothing more than looking at an everyday object and repurposing it. Think about the many ladders you’ve seen on Pinterest that are now bookshelves. Or fifty-five gallon tubs that are used as containers in container gardening. These are simple examples of lateral thinking.
Recently, someone stripped away the contents of a used book (not a valuable first-edition one-of-a kind book) and hid their internet router inside it. This was a hack to a problem. It was lateral thinking.
Many individuals, unfortunately put blinders on when they’re trying to their problems -- or even create something new. They believe, for whatever reason that they only have two options. The first is to put your head down and plow on, pushing forward despite the obstacles. Depending on the problem and the situation, the only result you’ll get is a headache.
The other choice is to spend as little effort on the problems as possible. This isn’t an acceptable choice either. Cutting corners never created any lasting breakthroughs or sparked any revolutions. It barely gets you through the day.
So how do you solve your problems? Try hard work combined with just the right amount of mental flexibility. You have to put in the effort. But you also have to be open and nonjudgmental enough to know when it’s time to try something else.