Conjure up ideas like a creative pro with lateral thinking

Blog Post | Aug 10th, 2021

Imagine your company's office has a small spare room and you are assigned to come up with a practical use for the space. Everyone at work already has an adequate office or workspace, and you won’t be hiring anyone new in the near future. Your inventory and production are all handled at a different location. Aside from this one empty space, everything in your office is pretty well situated and everyone is generally happy with the office layout.

A few ideas have already been kicked around. So far, you and your coworkers have come up with:

  • a meeting area, but the room is too small for that
  • a break room, but you already have one of those
  • a spare office for contractors to use, but you already have a space for that

You and your colleagues have concluded that none of these ideas are really all that great. They're all obvious solutions that immediately came to mind when you first started thinking this through.

There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.
Edward de Bono

Your job is to come up with a novel idea. Something out of the ordinary. A fresh and new kind of room that would give your office a little flavor while serving a useful purpose at the same time.

But how do people generate novel ideas? Is this a skill that anyone can acquire? Do great ideas simply pop up by chance to the creatively inclined? Is it luck? Is it genious?

A skill and a practice

Lateral thinking is the practice of intentionally letting go of an established thought process in order to generate new ideas. First coined in 1967 by psychologist Edward de Bono, lateral thinking is a process we can use for:

  • Coming up with new ideas
  • Breaking out of existing thought patterns
  • Removing the constraints that old ideas create
  • Training your brain to make new connections
The aim of lateral thinking is to look at things in different ways, to restructure patterns, to generate alternatives.
Edward de Bono

With lateral thinkinglateral thinking:
View in Glossary
, we step away from what we know and reach into the unknown with an open and unquestioning mind. This is how we shift from copying or merely modifying existing ideas to coming up with something completely fresh and new.

We call lateral thinking a practice for the plain reason that it's a skill we can improve upon by practicing. Rather than a one-off exercise that magically yields a single amazing result, the best and most creative ideas will likely come from people who practice lateral thinking as part of their everyday training.

Curious about what practicing lateral thinking might entail? Try Dial Up Ideas, our home-grown interactive lateral thinking exercise.

Lateral vs Vertical Thinking

It's helpful to explain lateral thinking by comparing and contrasting it with what de Bono calls vertical thinking, a complimentary style of thought whereby we practically develop ideas using a traditional linear approach.

You can't dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.
Edward de Bono

Where lateral thinking is concerned with creating novel ideas using imagination, risk taking and added intuition, vertical thinking enhances the effectiveness of lateral thinking by logically developing the ideas lateral thinking generates.

When novelty is critical

Edward De Bono identifies four critical factors to lateral thinking. We'll use these four factors a blueprint for our idea generation strategy.

  1. Recognize dominant ideas that polarize perception of a problem
  2. Search for different ways of looking at things
  3. Relax rigid controls thinking
  4. Use chance to encourage novel ideas. Lateral thinking involves low-probability ideas which are unlikely to occur in the normal course of events. It probably won't work, but it also may lead to another, more probable solution. We use this chance strategy in our interactive lateral thinking game, Dial up Ideas.

Let's try this together

Say we're designers at a shoe company looking for a way to improve the comfort and performance of our shoes. With vertical thinking, we’d revert to a familiar thought pattern, maybe by examining the existing arch support of our insoles or by evaluating the type of rubber we use on the outsoles of the shoe.

With lateral thinking, we allow our minds to break free from old strategies to think of more creative ideas. A lateral thinking exercise may get us thinking about a user’s pain and how they must visit the podiatrist from time to time. Thinking about a doctor might generate the idea of receiving an injection. This might yield the idea of including a foam injection system in the shoebox where the consumer would inject the shoe with some kind of foam that allowed the shoe to conform to the shape of the person’s individual foot.

Looking back at the steps involved in this thought process, notice that we detached from our obsession with improving the shoe. We suspended our thinking about the insoles, arch support, and outsole material. We relaxed and allowed ourselves to step back from our objective.

A void to fill

When we moved away from thinking about the shoe itself to progressively unrelated concepts, our goal of improving our shoe was never fully out of our mind. We stopped thinking about improving comfort, yet our problem never really left us. It was always there, running in the background. Further down the thought chain, it somehow seemed natural to make a connection between the doctor’s injection and our shoes. Our working thought process was on injections, but we still had a void to fill.

Here's a little side exercise you can do to easily recognize what it means to have a void to fill. Try singing the song "Happy Birthday". Sing it all the way through, but stop before you reach the last word. The final part of the song should be "Happy birthday, dear Albert, Happy Birthday to". Stop right there. Do not sing the final note.

Like our shoe problem, we intentionally left the end of the song unresolved. While figuring out that final note to "Happy Birthday" is far from a massive creative endeavor, the feeling we get is similar. Our minds want to complete the song. Our minds want to solve our problem.

It's up to chance

We go in to lateral thinking knowing that our ideas have a low-probability of solving our problem.

Rather than settle on the first idea that comes to mind, we can and should use this approach to generate many ideas, and then converge on the best ones.

The concept of coming up with many ideas for the sake of generating ideas is known as divergent thinking. You can learn all about divergent thinking and try out an interactive divergent thinking exercise here at the Guide Projects blog.

Return to vertical thinking

Once we reach an idea we’d like to develop, we return to vertical thinking to test feasability and to plan the logistics of such an operation. Is this possible given the available resources? Is the risk worth the reward? Let's think this through logically, maybe run some tests or design a prototype, and then we'll take a look at the numbers.

Back to the office

Are you still thinking about what you’d do with the room in our office? What ideas do you have? How did you arrive at the idea? Did you try Dial up Ideas?

Post your ideas here in the reddit.

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Written by brian kerr
"Existentialism Is a Cyborgism"
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