Lateral Thinking to Find Breakthrough Ideas

Creativity is not something someone is born with, though no doubt some people are more naturally gifted in this area than others. Creativity and lateral thinking are concerned with changing perceptions, concepts and viewpoints of the way one looks at something in order to generate new ideas...and it's a skill that can be learnt.

Take the example of team who have been charged with putting together a new strategy for a division. The team has identified four alternatives and are having trouble deciding which one to go with. Most people would accept this and try and solve the problem logically - and therein lies the problem. What this team needs are alternatives. What other alternatives are there that they haven't yet thought of? Identifying alternatives may lead to yet more alternatives and quite possibly, an alternative is arrived at that makes the decision easy.

Most people are logical, linear and sequential thinkers. This is not a criticism - it's just the way we're trained from our early days at school. In fact, the brain is purposely very good at this sort of thinking. Patterns (think of them as rivers or channels) are formed in the brain that make us all very good logical thinkers and it turns out that we would find it awfully difficult to live in our world without this kind of thinking. However, when "out of the box" or creative thinking is needed and we need to escape from these rivers (or channels of thought), we find it very, very hard. We find it hard to escape and move laterally though our thought process to identify fresh, new, alternative ideas that may be better than the ones we already know of. Any ideas that we do come up are generally constrained by our thinking (existing channels) and the way we look at the world, and are unlikely to lead to breakthroughs.


Thankfully, there are techniques and tools that can help us. Edward de Bono (the guru of Lateral Thinking) has made it his life's work to teach people this kind of thinking. His book "Serious Creativity" is a good read on this general topic.

We have used this in the areas of strategy, decision making, schedule acceleration, etc. One particular technique is the Challenge Technique. This challenges, not only the "as is" but the "thinking" that arrived at the "as is". Challenging the thinking is where insights occur and breakthroughs are identified.

There is one problem - and that's people. To make this effective, the audience has to be:

  • Open to new ways of looking at a problem

  • A willingness to look at something that is not a problem, but still want to explore alternatives to see if there's a better way of doing something

  • A willingness to pause and look for alternatives for something, even though the "something" may not be a problem

  • A willingness to challenge uniqueness and the current thinking to see if there are any better alternatives

This, as it turns out, is the most difficult part because it requires an audience with an open mind. Those audiences that do partake in such an exercise benefit in ways they could never have thought of. As a side note, we have also used this process to identify alternatives when using decisionAccelerator.

I'll just leave you with a short "fun" lateral thinking problem that highlights what I'm describing very well.

A cowboy leaves Town A on his horse and he rides to Town B and it takes him one day to get there. He spends the following day in Town B then rides back to Town A the next day, again taking one day. He leaves on Monday and he returns on Monday. How does he do it?

Send us answers if you have the urge!