how to apply lateral thinking

improve yourself

“Pretend that you’re trapped in a magical room with only two exits. Through the first exit is a room made from a giant magnifying glass, and the blazing hot sun will fry you to death. Through the second door is a room with a fire-breathing dragon. Which do you go through?

The first door, of course; simply wait until the sun goes down. 

The answer to this puzzle is an example of what psychologists call ‘lateral thinking’. The most elegant solution presents itself when you approach the problem sideways, rather than answering it head-on. Though the question is presented as a binary choice —one option or the other— when you disregard the assumption that you must act immediately, the ‘best’ answer becomes obvious.

The trouble for most of us is that even if we’re ‘creative’, our default setting is ‘linear thinking’. But that default can be overridden.
Here are five steps to train yourself to think a little more laterally with any challenge:

1_List the assumptions
When confronted with a question (problem, challenge, etc.), write out the assumptions inherent to the question. In the case of the puzzle above, the list might include the following:

  • You want to get out of the room
  • You have to choose one of the two options
  • You have to do something now
  • Room One will kill you no matter what (or so we think!)
  • Room Two will kill you no matter what

2_Verbalize the convention
Next, ask yourself the question: how would a typical person approach this problem? Map out the obvious, straightforward solutions. Then ask yourself: what if I couldn’t go this route?

3_Question the question
Ask yourself: what if I could rewrite the question? Rearrange the pieces to form a new scenario. In the trapped room scenario, instead of “which do you go through?” you might rewrite the question to ask “will you go through one of them?” or “will these really kill you?” or “do you even need to go through one of them?”.

4_Start backwards
Often the route to solving a problem is revealed when you start with the solution first, and try to work backward. For example, asking the question: how would I get into a trapped room if it were adjoined by a room made out of a magnifying glass? By reframing the challenge in this way, you’ll notice that I stripped away the details that cause you to overthink the answer to the trapped room example. But in a real-life scenario, this question might sound more like “how could we renewably generate 10 gigajoules of electricity?” rather than “how could we make the city more energy efficient?” —a vague question that often results in straightforward, but ineffective answers like “get people to turn off their lights more”.

5_Change perspective
Finally, one of the reasons innovation often happens when outsiders enter a new industry, or when disparate groups bump into one another, is because fresh perspective are convention-ignorant. To kickstart lateral thinking, you might do well to pretend you were someone else trying to solve the problem. Say, if you were a magician, or a scientist, or a track and field star, how would they escape from the fire room? Or how would the fire-breathing dragon answer this question? Etc.

In our modern work culture, we generally cling to two conventions when solving problems: 1) put your head down and work relentlessly until fortune strikes; and 2) spend as little effort as possible. The problem with each of these philosophies is actually somewhat lazy. Mental work is more difficult than rote physical work, though we often fool ourselves into thinking that because you can see the latter, it’s just as or more valuable. Conversely, no one ever changed the world by cutting corners. It’s the combination of the two, hard work and mental flexibility, that leads to revolutions.”

Shane Snow journalist & cofounder of Contently

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