Brainstorming, thinking outside the box and, now, thought showers are great ways to get people to come up with new ideas. Businesses thrive on new ideas. They want to invent, manufacture, improve, and deliver product more efficiently, or to get into a new account, develop the account or to dominate a market segment. Successful businesses need good ideas to keep them moving forward.
Edward De Bono was the first to be what he, himself, described as a thinker about thinking; he was a true Thought Leader. Back in the 1960s, he decided that people are good at logical thinking and processing the results of that kind of thinking, but they are not so good at creative thinking. In the days of efficiency and functionality, creativity was not always welcome, so “outside the box” thinking was not taught and not encouraged. Today, that is not the case.
Lateral, or Discontinuous, Thinking
Its purpose, simply, is to come up with new ideas and to escape from old ones. It is a way of cross-referencing knowledge to break out of existing patterns of behavior, and to generate new ones. Better ways of manufacturing, controlling stock, managing finance, handling labor relations, producing marketing campaigns, and so on, can progress incrementally or they can leap-frog creatively.
Step-by-step improvements that come from logical thoughts are just that; they tend to maintain the current way, they just make it a little better than it was before. Lateral thinking breaks that continuity, removes or lowers barriers, and indicates a new way.
De Bono emphasized that both forms of thinking are essential; lateral thinking should not replace logical thought, they should complement each other. An outside-the-box idea needs to be tested. He said logical thought tends to work on a right/wrong or yes/no basis. Lateral thinking tends to operate on a multiple-options basis that examines individual parts of a new idea.
A logical thinker may consider something to be impossible. Example:
- If you want to dominate a market, become a major stockholder in all key accounts, so they have to buy from us. This is impossible, makes no sense, so the logical thinker discards it.
The lateral thinker considers the crazy idea, makes sense of it, and wonders how to use it. Example:
- We cannot buy up all of our key accounts, so let’s consider how stockholders view their ownership in a company, and what value companies see in their stockholders. How can we get our key accounts to view us in the same way? Will that encourage them to want to buy only from us? How can our marketing department build that concept into our marketing campaigns so we can dominate our key accounts?
The Lateral Thought Process
People whose natural thought process is abstract-random do this automatically. Concrete-sequential thinkers, for example, need a process and approved triggers. People can develop lateral thinking skills by:
- Using analogies to describe something. Analogies force non-traditional views about regular topics.
- Immediately thinking of an opposite idea to the one someone else just mentioned (we must reduce transport costs – OK, have the customer collect the product from us, or make our products in their warehouse so we won’t have delivery costs.)
- Challenging all assumptions (what if the apple had fallen upwards? How would that affect . . .)
- Beginning with a topic, and link any other possible idea, topic, associated word or thought to it in some way.
- Finding new entry points to any problem/solution.
- Having to come up with any improvement to the idea on the table (criticizing an idea is not permitted.)
Teamwork, social media, electronic notice boards, management retreats, etc, all provide the opportunity for creative thinking. Crazy ideas can become big business:
- Post-it notes started because someone in 3M wanted to invent reusable glue.
- GoToMeeting began because someone decided it is easier for the venue to go to the participants than for the participants to get to the venue.
- Overnight debit card transaction processing began because the UK’s National Coal Board’s was running out of coal miners’ payrolls to process.
Lateral thinking delivers results.
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