Lateral Thinking

It’s an exciting day because I just found the fifth concept in my Top 10 List – do you still remember the first four?

(1) A Great Man is One Sentence (click here for the post)

(2) A Great Man is Also One Question (click here for the post)

(3) Cracking Life’s Code (click here for the post)

(4) The Elephant and The Rider (click here for the post)

 

So what is lateral thinking*? 

(1) It’s an anti-logic problem solving tool.

  • Compare vertical thinking that is taught in school. Every step is logical and must be correct, e.g. mathematics. To solve for x = …, every step involved in the calculation must be correct or else the final answer cannot be derived.
  • In education, one is taught how to find the correct answer via vertical thinking.
  • The approach is to balance vertical thinking and lateral thinking. One without the other is like a ship without sails or a rudder.
  • Vertical thinking is used when specialized knowledge is required; lateral thinking is used when the knowledge is readily available and it’s more about the best use of that knowledge. Both are complementary.
  • Natural search for alternative is not the same as lateral thinking. The former operates from existing arrangement of information/ patterns. Finding an alternative from the same frame of mind is not lateral thinking.

(2) Our mind as a self maximizing memory system**

  • The mind creates ‘patterns‘ it receives and organizes them in a way we understand. Because of that, our attention area is limited so that we can choose to focus on the patterns we seek. As a result, the sequence of information arrival (to our brain) is important. This sequence refers to the timing of arrival and also the impact of preceding pattern.
  • There is a tendency for established patterns to grow larger and hence they become harder to ‘restructure’ (via lateral thinking).
  • Hence why we find we grow more rigid as we age – the patterns we establish become the ‘only truths’ we perceive. It’s this insight that I also understand the saying, ‘your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness’.
  • Graphically it can be depicted as below – our life as we grow or a single thought we we believe in. Whenever we learn something new (or patterns, e.g, blocks 2-5), we fit them into what we already know. Block 6 is where mid life crisis happens or when the new info couldn’t fit into our existing frame of mind. Note the problem is also contributed by the sequence of arrival of the blocks. (Compare this with another alternative***)

1

  • Because of this, it’s important to remember that whatever way we are currently arranging the information, it is always less than the best possible God-eye-possible alternative. Whatever we are doing now, there is always a better way of doing it.
  • Conversely, lateral thinking is not required in the linear system of computer where the arrangement of information is always the best possible or in a world where chaos is the norm and so no rigid patterns can ever be established.
  • Hence the problem of no problem. It’s wrong to believe in ‘don’t fix it if it ain’t broken’. 
  • Some may consider lateral thinking a waste of time. Whereas vertical thinking will always find the least solution, lateral thinking is probabilistic in nature. Engaging it could yield no result or a better than expected result.
  • It is an anti arrogance device and where we suspend judgement, something which is not possible in vertical thinking.

(3) Lateral thinking is about looking at things in a different way, i.e. (a) insight restructuring or challenging accepted concepts and (b) rearrangement of information or provocative use of information. Lateral thinking is about ‘this may even turn out to be the only way. But let us look around for other ways.’

  • To start [an alternative] train of thought
    • Find out the dominant idea – why are we always looking at this thing in the same way? What are the crucial factors? What is keeping us to this old approach?
    • Reversal method
    • Brainstorming
    • Analogies
    • Entry point and attention area
  • To escape cliche patterns:
    • Generate fixed quota of alternatives – look at things in different ways
    • Fractionation – dividing problems into smaller patterns to encourage new way of looking at things.
    • Random stimulation
    • Blocked by openness – to look for a better way of doing something even though there is an adequate way. Adequate doesn’t mean better.

I used to think that doing something meaningless is a sheer waste of time because it doesn’t yield any visible result. However, this concept of lateral thinking forces me to rethink the principle. It’s true the former method serves to give me the least solution in everything I do; however it is not always the best possible arrangement. That’s vertical thinking in charge. The consequence of it is becoming more rigid in thinking. If we spend a few minutes engaging in lateral thinking, our thinking process will be more complete. It’s like shifting into reverse gear once in a while, like throwing pebbles into a bottle to draw out the water, like taking a break from work, like taking a step back in order to leap forward, like shaking things up just to see if there is a new arrangement. Since lateral thinking means suspended judgement and due to to its probabilistic nature, it’s ok not to get any visible solution. In fact, it doesn’t even care if there is any result – only if there is a new arrangement of information or a new use of it.

p/s:

*the term is coined by Edward de Bono. Suggested reading Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono.

**this part is only for readers who are interested to find out why. Else it can be skipped entirely.

***an alternative arrangement 2

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