Pretend that you're hosting some friends at your house for dinner. After the meal, you bring out a round cake that you'd like to cut into eight slices, so everyone can have one. But there's a catch: you can only make three cut marks before your only knife will break. How will you do it?
It may be tempting to cut the cake like most people do when I ask them this question:
With just one more cut, you can make eight pieces, but if you're limited to three cuts, you can only make six this way. So now what?
The solution is to turn the problem (in this case, literally the cake) on its side:
This is a physical example of a method of problem solving that psychologists call "lateral thinking." Whereas we're naturally inclined (and taught) to attack problems linearly, like in algebra, lateral thinking is about approaching problems from new or non-obvious directions.
Some people call this creativity. Buzzwordists call it "thinking outside the box," based on the Nine Dots Puzzle made famous circa the 1970s. Steven Covey called it "paradigm shift." Whatever you call it, it's a useful tool. And, it turns out, it's how almost every breakthrough in history has happened—from the arts, to science, to business.
In 2014, I published a book about lateral thinking in history, and have since spoken to thousands of people about it in keynotes from London to Phoenix to Hong Kong. The very first question I get after a keynote is also the most common question I get in emails from readers: How can you get everyday people who aren't lateral thinkers to think this way?
There's plenty to learn from research and stories of lateral thinkers, but if you want to trick yourself into using lateral thinking, the most helpful tool I've found are questions that force you to reconsider problems from different angles.
Here are my favorite questions to ask myself when I'm working on a problem with either a too-conventional or no apparent solution:
- How would a type of person of a different background or expertise look at this challenge?
- How have other industries (not your own) approached similar challenges in the past?
- If no one would get in trouble for anything you tried, what could you do?
- What assumptions are we making about the question itself, and what if those assumptions weren't true? (Even better: list them out and ask this question one by one.)
- If we had to use a different era of technology (sci-fi future or ages past), what could we do?
- How would you prevent you from succeeding with your proposed solution if you were someone else?
- What would an expert recommend we do? (Then do the opposite.)
- How could we solve this problem 100 times cheaper than we presently do? (So cheap that you couldn't just do the same thing more efficiently.)
- How could we make this 10 times better? (So much better that you couldn't just do more of what you're already doing.)
My old company Contently's industry is a product of Question #1; it's an industry built by applying the storytelling skillset of the journalist to the challenge of advertising: How do you build relationships and make people care about your business at a time when ads are everywhere and people have more choice about what they see and skip?
One of my favorite examples of Question #2 is when the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London had problems with transferring patients from operating beds to recovery room; there were too many complicated things to do in a short time and a tight space. Instead of looking at best practices in their own industry, they solved the problem by thinking like Formula 1 race car pit crews, and even went down to Italy to study Ferrari teams. By doing this, they were able to dramatically reduce their error rates, and save a lot of lives.
Lateral thinking is how the most innovative companies consistently beat the market and invent products that change the world. It's why presidents with little political experience are ranked higher by historians than straightforward politicians. And it's why many of us have trouble recognizing genius when it's right in front of us, while some use that to their advantage.
I believe that lateral thinking is one of the most underrated skills that we don't teach kids in school. Fortunately, it's a muscle we can develop at any point. With the right questions, building it can be a piece of cake.