Lateral Thinking: The Sidestep to Eureka
The year was 1967. The physician, psychologist, and author Edward de Bono had a bone to pick with the problem solving techniques used at most universities and companies of the day: a process relying on data, logic, and step-by-step deduction that involved little in the way of creative thinking. He termed this rigid setup vertical thinking, turned up his lip, and set about creating something he believed to be better—an all new way to generate “eureka!” moments.
In order to come up with novel ideas, de Bono proposed, you need a more indirect, intuitive problem-solving approach that forces the mind out of its usual patterns and allows it to take off in new directions. He called this lateral thinking and developed a series of methods and techniques aimed at stimulating it.
These three exercises designed by Doctor de Bono can help you toward a breakthrough, even on days when the muses aren’t singing.
One of the simplest and most effective methods to trigger new ideas is the so called random input method, which consists of using a random word or picture to help your mind think in new directions. One way to do it is with a dictionary. While you’re brainstorming, close your eyes, open the dictionary and put your finger randomly on the page. Use whatever word your finger landed on.
It can be easy to dismiss the word, thinking it has absolutely nothing to do with the problem you’re trying to solve, but persist. If, say, you’re brainstorming new features for an app and your finger lands on the word “banana,” you might be tempted to close your eyes, put your finger in the dictionary again, and hope for a more fruitful word. But stick with it, explore the word’s connotations—food, jungle, afternoon snack, banana fly—and see where it takes you.
Another way to stimulate lateral thinking is through provocative statements and questions. One example is to reverse the problem you’re trying to solve. Let’s say you and your colleagues are brainstorming new functions to improve your product. Start by asking yourselves “How could we make it worse?” Once you have a bunch of ideas of what would make your product really bad for your users, try to find possible solutions that would make it better. Apart from being an effective way of generating new ideas, this can also be a lot of fun.
One fun way to generate new ideas is to move features or characteristics from one object to another. This is how it works: Let’s say you’re trying to improve a blog post you’ve written. Take an object in the room and break it down into its main features or characteristics. For instance, if you have an apple on your desk, it’s a fruit, it’s red and it’s yummy. Then, think of ways to apply these characteristics to your blog post and see what ideas it triggers.