Lateral thinking, or 'thinking outside the box' is a powerful device to help stretch the capabilities of your grey cells, and to improve your ability to think creatively about problems.
The concept behind lateral thinking is simple: the creative process is not logical. Most of the great discoveries came about because people made a crazy connection in their minds and asked the question, 'what if...?'.
So, if you want to solve a problem or come up with a good idea, you may need to examine the problem from a really different point of view; to stop yourself from trying to be correct all the time, and actually focus on being wrong for a change!
Lateral thinking was conceived by Edward de Bono in the 1960s.
Dr de Bono earned a degree in medicine from the Royal University of Malta; a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar; and a PhD from Cambridge. He has held faculty appointments at several universities, including Harvard in the USA.
His belief that productive thought is a skill, which can be developed like any other, has led to teaching engagements at corporations around the world including the Pentagon1.
He is the author of many self-help books, such as:
- The Five Day Course in Thinking
- Lateral Thinking
- Serious Creativity
- Six Thinking Hats
- Teach Yourself to Think
One of his techniques involves using random stimulation, a process in which you try to relate the problem to completely random information, to see what the result is. Get out a dictionary, open a random page, and randomly point at an entry. Then start to make connections.
Say, for example, you are thinking about buying somebody you like a present, but you don't know what to get them.
Think of such random subjects as 'sharks', 'boulder', 'bad acne', and so on; and relate them back to the problem at hand. Now try to relate these concepts to your problem. What links can you find? How does this help your problem?
Another of his techniques, reversal, is really simple, and is surprisingly worthwhile. Consider the problem at hand, then consider the opposite; or just reverse something about it.
You are thinking of going on holiday this summer, but where?
Reverse the issue: where is the worst place you can think of to go on holiday? Where would you go on holiday if it was winter?
Yet another of de Bono's techniques involves taking advantage of people's initial ideas when trying to solve a problem, ideas which are often discarded. These ideas are either discarded because they won't work, or because they are illogical or ill-thought out. The idea of the stepping stone method is to record these ideas, no matter how ridiculous they might be. They may prove to be useful in pointing the way to a better idea, and eventually to the solution to the problem. The stepping stone technique can be performed alone, or in a group as part of a brainstorming session.
Say you need to double sales in your company next year...
Initial ideas might include:
- A big promotion on television (too expensive)
- A door-to-door salesman campaign (too intrusive and time-consuming)
- A cut-price sale to increase customer loyalty (too risky)
Now, start to fiddle with these ideas. Combine them together. Rearrange them. Look for alternatives. What do you come up with? Forget about television, what about radio? What about newspapers? Even if the answer you get is still not the right answer, record it and come back to it. Using stepping stones you can arrive at a good alternative answer.
Alternatively, you can relate your problem to a different, but somehow similar, scenario; and see how that scenario might be addressed by the participants.
Say you want to reduce your loan to the bank...
Link this to fireman fighting a fire, or a doctor trying to cure a patient, or a policeman looking for a bank-robber. How would they go about it? Could you use similar techniques for your problem?