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Lateral Thinking: A Primer

lateral thinking

What is lateral thinking?

Pretend that you're hosting some friends at your house for dinner.

After the meal, you bring out a round cake. You'd like to cut it into eight equal slices, so your friends all know you love them equally.

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But there's a catch: you can only make three cut marks before your only knife will break.

How will you do it?

Now most people, when I ask them this question, start cutting the cake like a pizza. Cut it in half, cut it in half again... but then!

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... you need four cuts to make eight slices this way.

But if you're limited to three cuts. You can only make six this way.

So now what?

The solution is obvious... but it might not be until after you see it.

The solution to this little puzzle is to make those first two cuts above, and then to turn the problem (in this case, literally) on its side:

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This is a physical example of a method of problem solving that psychologists call "lateral thinking."

Lateral thinking is about exploring problems from new angles.

Whereas humans are naturally inclined (and taught) to attack problems from the point of view that we're presented them, lateral thinking is about approaching problems from new or non-obvious directions.

Buzzwordists call this "thinking outside the box," based on the Nine Dots Puzzle made famous circa the 1970s. Steven Covey called it a "paradigm shift." Whatever you call it, turning problems on their sides so we can look at them from new angles is a useful tactic.

And, it turns out, it's how almost every breakthrough in history has happened—from the arts, to science, to business.

Some years ago, I published a book about lateral thinking in history. I have since spoken to thousands of people about it in keynotes from London to Phoenix to Hong Kong. And 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 starting tool I've found are questions that force you to reconsider problems from different angles.

The Most Basic Technique For Sparking Lateral Thinking Is To Simply Ask Yourself Questions That FOrce You To Turn The Problem On Its Side.

Here are my favorite questions to ask myself when I'm working on a problem with either a too-conventional or no apparent solution:

  1. How would a type of person of a different background or expertise look at this?
  2. How have other industries (not your own) approached similar challenges in the past?
  3. If no one would get in trouble for anything you tried, what could you do?
  4. If we had to use a different era of technology (say, sci-fi future, or ages past), what could we do?
  5. How would you prevent you from succeeding with your proposed solution if you were someone else?
  6. What is the opposite of how an expert would recommend we approach this?
  7. 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.)
  8. How could we make this 10 times better? (So much better that you couldn't just do more of what you're already doing.)

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.