2018 is here — the new year is a great time to try something new. We think Lateral Thinking should be part of every team’s skillset so here’s a quick introduction followed by real-life examples of how it works around the MS offices.

First, an Explanation…

Lateral thinking is the process of using information to bring about creativity and insight restructuring. It’s an idea generation and problem-solving technique in which new concepts are created by looking at things in unusual ways. Whereas the logical “vertical” thinking carries a chosen idea forward, the sideways “lateral” thinking provokes fresh ideas or changes the frame of reference. Lateral thinking tries to bypass the logical traditional method to solve a problem through a radically different approach. It can be associated with the “think outside the box” concept.

The term was promulgated in 1967 by Edward de Bono in his book “Lateral Thinking”.

In our UX Department social meetings, mind puzzles are a common thing. We love them and we’re always eagerly anticipating the new challenge each one poses. They bring everything together and make it all more enjoyable. Most of the time, I’m the one in charge of bringing these little jewels into the meetings. Luckily, since I like them so much, I’ve collected quite a few since I was a kid.

Our First Lateral Thinking Workshop

In our department we periodically take turns preparing workshops for the rest of the team on different topics that might be interesting. One day our Head of department said “Hey Marcos, why don’t you make a workshop about lateral thinking?”, and so I did.

Marcos Rigoli Lateral Thinking

The goal of this workshop was to understand the concept, get useful examples, and explore how we could encourage its use in our offices. I found it a bit difficult to work such a subjective topic into a workshop, but thankfully our team is responsive with high participation levels. This made the event an inspirational, fun and positive experience.

The Famous ‘9 Dots’ Problem

After starting the workshop with a small explanation, I used the popular 9 dots problem as a self-explanatory puzzle. The goal is to touch every dot with four straight lines without lifting the pen:

This is an almost literal example of “thinking outside the box” since most people normally bind themselves to the imaginary square formed by the peripheral dots. In order to solve this you have to extend the lines beyond these boundaries to get the right strokes:

Real-Life Examples of Lateral Thinking

Then we cited some real-life examples, like Adam Pacitti and Alec Brownstein, both of whom used amazingly unusual ways to find jobs. Another useful example is in sports, when Dick Fosbury changed the high jump forever with the Fosbury flop technique, instead of using the traditional one.

These are well defined examples, since searching for a job or training in sports seem to follow patterns with expected repetition. It’s not easy to give clear examples in web development, since programmers use it all the time when solving new problems and the creative process of designers requires them to constantly try to innovate and communicate in novel ways, so lateral thinking is being used all the time.

Ways to Improve our Lateral Thinking

Here’s what we encourage in our own teams at Making Sense:

  • Distortion: When you think something will work, think of extreme situations.
  • Exposure: Consider things unrelated to the problem. Could a soccer team be related to our organizational problems? How?
  • Cross-fertilization: Ask experts in other areas how they might solve a problem.
  • Problem switching: Don’t get stuck. Switch back and forward between different problems.
  • Challenge: Assume there may be different ways to do something, even if there is no apparent problem with the current way of doing it.
  • Review things taken for granted: Constructively challenge the status quo to enable new ideas to appear.
  • Think of problems as opportunities.
  • Brainstorming: This technique is excellent for new ways of dealing with problems.
  • Be constructive, not disruptive: Listen to ideas and opinions no matter how awful they sound at first. Encourage feedback. Creativity can be fed anywhere by anyone.

Nobody’s saying you have to be continuously employing Lateral Thinking for hours upon end before taking action. All it takes might be spending a mere 5 to 10 minutes on this to set the stage for doing something differently. Lateral thinking is a technique and can be learned and trained, just like a muscle.

Group Activities to Train Lateral Thinking

The objective of training the brain in this matter is to make it more sensitive to alternate ways of attacking any problem.

Some group techniques are:

  • The Random Word technique
  • The Random Picture technique
  • The Escapism technique

In the first two, the idea is to come up with a problem, get a random word/picture (there are several randomizers for this), and use whatever pops up to elaborate a solution to your problem. It might take a few attempts but be careful when discarding the randomized element, since the harder the word or picture to work with, the better the exercise.

With Escapism you can propose the wildest, most outrageous and preposterous things you can imagine. You use true escapism where there are no morals, rules, etiquette, laws or standards. You escape the physical limitations of the world to see what your ultimate solution would be. You should not limit yourself by anything except your own imagination and even with that, you should try and push the limits. Your mission in this technique is to write down the wildest, most ridiculous, stupid, wacky ideas you can come up with to solve the problem. They do not have to be practical (or even possible).

It may not be an easy activity since many people in a group may be shy, quiet or may think these activities are stupid… which they are… but with a purpose.

A Personal Opinion

I suggest everyone train their Lateral Thinking while having fun, just by playing chess. As simple as that. Chess is THE strategy game of excellence because makes you analyze things in different ways. At first glance, this may sound odd since Chess has strict rules which cannot be bent or changed in any way, but the mindset for mastering the game offers several benefits:

  • Makes you excel at observation
  • Involves the constant analysis of situations and different approaches, to make strategies and predict the other player

It may not be directly apparent, but all the mental skills you use while playing chess are extremely useful when you analyze things in general. If you play this game frequently, it will improve your mental skills and make you look at things from atypical perspectives. Or maybe I just love the game, but still, I think it’s very useful and rewarding!