The term ‘lateral thinking’ was actually first coined by Edward deBono, who is regarded as the leading international authority in creative thinking and in the teaching of thinking as a skill. This came about during an interview in 1967, that de Bono was giving to a magazine called London Life. He was referring to “the other sort of thinking” meaning the thinking that was not linear, sequential, and logical. As he described how you needed to move ‘laterally’ to find other approaches and other alternatives, it occurred to him that this was the word that he needed to best describe the process. The term has now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary
Lateral Thinking can be best defined as a means of escaping established ideas and perceptions in order to find new ones; in doing so, however, one is assumed to take an approach that moves away from traditional ways of thinking.
The need for lateral thinking arises from the way the mind works. Though the information handling system called mind is highly effective it has certain characteristic limitations. These limitations are inseparable from the advantages of the system since both arise directly from the nature of the system. It would be impossible to have the advantages without the disadvantages. Lateral thinking is an attempt to compensate for these disadvantages while one still enjoys the advantages.
So, how can we learn to see things differently ? How can we train our minds to think laterally ? There is more than enough published material that attempts to answer these questions, and it is not the scope of this website to add to the voluminous material that is available. From my experiences I have learnt that it is not easy to adopt a lateral thinking attitude, however, I strongly believe that there are some basic ‘factors’ that need to be present in the ‘lateral thinking’ brain in order for the ‘process’ to be allowed to flow. In my opinion, these would include the following :
i) an understanding of the difference between ‘vision’ and ‘perception’ and how this places limitations on our decision making and problem solving capabilities. The field of neuro economics was born out of the realization that ‘cognitive biases’ place limitations on the physical workings of our brains. How we perceive something is not simply a product of what our senses transmit to our brains – perception is a product of our brain. And perception lies at the heart of ‘lateral thinking’. Lateral thinkers manage to see things differently because being aware of ‘cognitive’ traps and ‘perceptual narrowings’ and shortcuts that limit our options, they are compelled to look for and find alternative ‘out of the box’ solutions that the hardwired general public may easily miss.
ii) the courage to ride the fear of failure, fear of change and possible ridicule. Fear kills most lateral thinking possibilities before they even have the chance to surface because lateral thinking ideas usually take us to places that we have never been before. These ideas are usually untested, and come with no guarantee as to how things will pan out. This is very visible in a business environment where the price could be very high – you could get fired, or even worse, ridiculed. New ideas are usually seen as a threat, or shot down and ridiculed before they are even considered, and this produces a personal fear that can stop us dead in our tracks. So we keep things for ourselves. The chattering monkeys in our brains suggest that we clam up and stay in our comfort zones – why risk ?? Lateral thinking demands taking risks – there is no way round this.
iii) Some basic tools to assist the brain in making the ‘lateral ‘ leap – and ,of course, the right environment for your ‘lateral thinking’ to flourish. This is not always the case and can lead to disillusionment and abandonment.
It is not easy to think laterally – probably this explains why so many books and articles are continuously being published and posted on the internet about the subject, claiming techniques and tools that assist us to think out of the box. In order to think laterally we need to break out of the cycle of ‘routine patterns’ that have been carved into our brains over the years. Education and experience contribute greatly to this cycle of conformity, pre-conceived notions and ‘established’ ways of decision making and problem solving. Edward deBono claims that only a few people have a natural aptitude for lateral thinking, but everyone can develop a certain skill if they set about it deliberately. Lateral thinking is not a magic formula which can be learned at once and usefully applied thereafter. It is an attitude and habit of mind. Lateral thinking is a matter of attitude and practice – not revelation. It proposes to move beyond the ‘assumptions’ that we inevitably include in our decision mix, as this usually takes us down a different path when the mind is left to it’s own devices. This is probably due to the fact that from the age of five our entire lives are dedicated to retaining facts, valuing logic and following the rules.
Schooling is usually followed by further education, sometimes the military, or eventually a position of employment, where more rules and regulations are imposed on the way we do things. At no point are we encouraged to think differently or creatively. We follow the rules and we are rewarded for doing so. The odds are heavily stacked against anyone who has the courage to step out of the norm and dare to explore, question or challenge the status quo. No wonder lateral thinkers are few and far between.
This book is not about the theory and tools needed to develop a lateral thinking mind, but a collection of stories, anecdotes and experiences that attempt to explain, with hindsight, the concept of lateral thinking, and how this has been applied and used successfully in all aspects of life since the beginning of time.
Where possible I have tried to verify the veracity of the stories, and their source, however, what is more important is that the stories are viewed and read merely with the intention of understanding the underlying concepts of lateral thinking, even where the story seems unlikely to be true. It is the thinking behind the story, and the ‘lateral switch’ in each story that I have tried to capture in this collection.