Where would we be without lateral thinkers? Nowhere, probably. I would imagine all of the major secrets of the universe – electricity, flight, trigonometry etc – have been unlocked by some dedicated soul, who, having exhausted the 99% perspiration embarks on a ‘gee, I wonder if I approached it from this completely different angle, what might happen?’

Take something that the vast majority of us have the good fortune to take for granted, seeing. I have always considered is something active, that we do to an object to see it. But no, some clever sausage figured out that it’s a passive thing, that the eye absorbs all the visual stimuli, and the retina, rods and cones do the rest.

That ability to genuinely think laterally, to think outside the box as the business world has coined for the last two decades, is a really rare phenomenon. It requires us to consciously abandon the traditional patterns of thought that have governed how we operate in the world since childhood, and come at things from a new direction.

For forty years Edward de Bono has pioneered – and I believe originated the name of – lateral thinking. I remember attending a talk by EdB along with a few hundred other paying guests in Dublin around the turn of the century. By the way, since 14 years have elapsed since the new millennium, I think we’re now at liberty to use the phrase ‘turn of the century’ without appearing overly dramatic. Mr de Bono eschewed the lure of powerpoint and used a rolling film of acetate where he scribbled his line-drawn illustrations before winding each drawing from sight, ready for the next clean canvas and blindingly new example of creative thinking.

This man’s work is nowhere near as theoretical as you might think, and he had dozens of examples of how he and his team had been retained by governments and corporations to solve some problem or other. His solutions were so left field that you were left breathless by the degree to which they put in stark relief how blinkered your own thinking was up until now. One example was a Swiss canton who wanted to solve a town parking problem where they didn’t want to use meters or police the parking, but they didn’t want folk abandoning their cars for hours on end either. The solution? All you had to do when you parked was leave your headlights on.  Come back a couple of hours later and you risked a flat battery. Genius!

The business world has tried to adopt this approach of inspirationally cutting the Gordian Knot, with things like moderated ‘brainstorming’ sessions. With good reason too. We need these lateral thinkers, and these laterally thought out solutions, to keep turning the screw.

Advertisements