Classic Lateral Thinking Problem
Credit: Copyright 2011 Axest Marketing Inc.

Make Lateral Thinking One of Your Problem-Solving Tools!

Lateral thinking is a concept that's been around since the late 1960s, when author Edward de Bono published New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking.  In his book, which soon became required reading in many college critical thinking courses, de Bono outlined a new approach to problem solving -  one that emphasizes unconventional ways of looking at things, and implementing creative solutions.  

In the decades since, the idea has taken on a life of its own, and gained a foothold in popular culture.  It was the source of many of our pop-culture catch-phrases and references, such as the now-cliche "thinking outside the box," and "seeking new paradigms."  Lateral thinking was even immortalized in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, when Captain Kirk explained how he beat the infamous and supposedly unbeatable "Kobayashi Maru" test.

As a lateral thinker for most of my adult life, I've been described as an eccentric, a rule-breaker, a creative genius, and as a trouble-maker.  The truth is, traditional thinkers have a difficult time understanding how a lateral thinker's mind works.  A traditional thinker asks, "Is the glass half empty, or half full?"  The lateral thinker asks, "Why is that glass twice as large as it needs to be?"  A traditional thinker thinks, "There's more than one way to skin a cat!"  The lateral thinker thinks, "Why are we skinning the cat?"  A traditional thinker's path often ends at the line where probability crosses over into the realm mere possibility, while the lateral thinker's path begins where improbability meets the impossible.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that our schools no longer teach problem-solving skills to our kids as they are growing up.  Many people simply don't want to believe that thinking is a skill that must be exercised regularly, and can be improved, just like any other skill.  In their black-and-white world, there are just two possibilities - thinking and not-thinking.  If one must continue to use an "either-or" mindset, perhaps a more useful approach would be to classify thinking as effective, or ineffective.

In order to cultivate skills in lateral thinking, it's often necessary to identify and jettison ineffective thought patterns and challenge old assumptions.  One way to do that is to perform lateral thinking exercises every day.  Here are five that I  recommend:

1. Challenging the Cause and Effect Illusion.  This illusion is given credence every time we allow ourselves to believe that B follows A simply because it is caused by A.   A prime example of this sort of linear thinking that we may all be familiar with would be eating something unfamiliar for the first time, and then getting sick later.  It's possible that we were already sick when we ate the meal and simply not yet showing the symptoms, or perhaps it was an allergic reaction to something else in our environment.  There may have been multiple, highly complex factors at work, such as the interaction of medications and certain foods.  Here's your exercise:  Think of five things that always follow something else, but aren't necessarily caused by its predecessor. 

2.  Comparing the Dissimilar.  We all remember this phrase from our high school essay tests: "compare and contrast."  By definition, comparisons highlight similarities, while contrasts focus on differences.  So, what happens in your brain if you try to compare two things that are so dissimilar, that no obvious comparisons can be made?  The answer:  Your brain is forced to temporarily abandon black-and-white categorizations and begins to "color outside the lines" to come up with new and creative perspectives.   Your task is to come up with five comparisons that seem ludicrous at first blush.  Here's an easy one to start you off:  How is a frog like the moon?

3.  Unknow What Everyone Knows.  Think of five commonly accepted statements that begin with "Everyone knows..." and come up with plausible alternative explanations.  Your alternative explanations don't have to be supported by evidence of any kind, they just have to be possible.  Keep in mind that it wasn't so long ago that everyone knew the sun revolved around the earth, and sailors who ventured too far would fall off the edge of the earth.

4.  Consider the Impossible.  Lewis Carroll's Alice said, "There's no use trying, one can't   believe impossible things."  The Queen replied,  "I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."  Your exercise:  Emulate the Queen and imagine six impossible things (it needn't be before breakfast!) and explain why they should be reclassified as merely improbable, instead.

5. Make a Wish.  Compared to the previous exercises, this one is relatively simple.  People do it all the time, without even thinking - and perhaps that is why it is usually ineffective.  Make three wishes every day. The hardest  parts of this exercise are (1) making the wish a "serious" one by giving it some thought ahead of time, and (2) writing it down and keeping track, because you can't make the same wish twice.  That's right - after a year of three-wishes-a-day, you'll have 1095 wishes, in writing.  Needless to say, this exercise gets harder the further you are down the road, and it will no doubt be interesting to compare and contrast the wishes you're making now to the ones you'll be making a year from now.

By performing these exercises on a regular basis, you'll likely discover problem-solving skills that you never knew you had, and you will begin to see the world in an entirely different way.  You'll be better equipped to think critically and act decisively.  You may even find yourself being called an eccentric, a rule-breaker, a creative genius, or a trouble-maker.  Get used to it.

Classic Lateral Thinking Solution
Credit: Copyright 2011 Axest Marketing Inc.