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Lateral Thinking – Concepts, Training Methodologies and Applications in Business

Regular human thought patterns follow a standardised sequential approach which adheres strictly to logical reasoning and common sense. The lateral thinking concept conceived by Edward De Bono in 1967 (1991) is based upon harnessing the creative right side of the

brain, spawning buzzwords such as ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘thinking outside the square’, and ‘innovative and creative thinking’. De Bono is a prominent psychologist, consultant, management expert and author (Lewis 2005) who has written in excess of 60 books translated in over 34 languages (Kaul 2005). This significantly demonstrates the global relevance and application of lateral thinking. People of different ages, lifestyles, societies and ethnicities can be taught thinking – proving that lateral thinking is not a God-given talent (Feldman 2004), but a skill that can be taught cross-culturally. Lateral thinking is one of the few effective concepts despite the presence of such diversity. The master himself defines lateral thinking as:
“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.. Lateral Thinking is for changing concepts and perceptions…The brain as a self-organising information system forms asymmetric patterns. In such systems there is a mathematical need for moving across patterns. The tools and processes of lateral thinking are designed to achieve such ‘lateral’ movement. The tools are based on an understanding of self-organising information systems… In any self-organising system there is a need to escape from a local optimum in order to move towards a more global optimum. The techniques of lateral thinking are designed to help that change.”
(de Bono n.d.)

This report will outline the concept of lateral thinking, describe verified methodologies that can develop and enhance lateral thinking skills, and discuss how its applications in a business context not only has, but will enable organisations to achieve continuous growth and prosperity.

Concept of Lateral Thinking: Vertical vs Lateral
Lateral thinking advocates questioning the assumptions which establish the basis of reasoning, and trying out seemingly illogical ideas, concepts and perceptions. Lateral thinking seeks to break typical human thought patterns to enable formation of original, innovative, contemporary, never-before-seen solutions.

Training Methodologies
Contrary to popular belief, lateral thinking is not a natural born talent. It is a skill like any other which can be taught (Feldman 2004), becoming second nature with consistent effort, practice and adherence to guidelines set by various training organisations (Burton & Sack 1991) which develop and sharpen lateral thinking skills.

A summation of Edward de Bono’s (1982; 1994; 1996) methods are:

1. Alternatives and The Concept Fan
Alternatives use concepts as a breeding ground for new ideas due to the infrequent occurence of looking beyond obvious alternatives. This method extracts the concept behind a group of alternatives and then uses it to generate further alternatives. Alternatives run onto The Concept Fan (de Bono 1996), which is the process of moving from an idea to a concept then becoming the starting base for other ideas. A concept itself can also move to a more expansive concept thus becoming the starting base for alternative concepts. Each new alternative concept becomes a starting base for alternative ideas, producing a flow of alternative ideas.

2. APC (Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices)
De Bono (1982) credits this method for brainstorming alternatives for explanations, hypotheses, perceptions, problems, reviews, designs, decisions, courses of action and forecasting. Objections to this process are time wastage and that an abundance of alternatives may result in indecision and procrastination.

3. PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting)
This simple scanning tool primes the mind for objectivity, whereby attention is deliberately focused on the Plus points firsthand, followed by the Minus then Interesting points. PMI analyses of ideas comprehensively.

4. The Stepping Stone
Stepping Stone is the most provocative technique (de Bono 1996) and can lead to spectacular new ideas and approaches to problems. De Bono (1982) separates the two phases of Stepping Stone into:

1. The intentional setting up of the provocation or ‘stepping stone’, which is simply a provocative idea that stimulates the mind to think of other ideas; and

2. The effective use of the provocation to create practical new solutions.
Von Oech (1983) asserts Stepping Stones may be impractical in the real world, but their ability to lead the thinking process in undiscovered directions is invaluable.

5. The New Entry/Random Input
Based on the logic of patterning systems and developed in 1968 (de Bono 1982) the simplest technique of all is used consistently by advertising agencies, rock groups and playwrights. It is especially valuable for the development of original ideas and concepts in oversaturated industries (de Bono 1982). The process consists of obtaining a word which has no relevance to the situation and holding them together; from this juxtaposition new ideas are developed. De Bono (1996) depicts this as an easier technique as the provocation does not have to be constructed, and starting from a new entry point is a well-established process of creativity.

6. The Escape/Creative Pause
This direct practical technique is employed equally well by individuals and groups. The main direction of thinking is identified then an escape from this direction is implemented (de Bono 1982). This highly structured technique is based on the premise that a creative pause interrupts the smooth flow of routine, thus formulating thoughts about situations that no one else has previously stopped to think about.

7. Challenge
It is human nature to think of better alternatives only when situations are deemed inadequate thus limiting creativity and innovation (Mumford, Connelly & Gaddis 2003). Challenge does not critically assess the adequacy of the current method; it is based on the willingness to explore the reasoning why things are done and whether there are any alternatives. Understanding the logic of creativity is especially helpful in developing creative skills in engineers, financial people and technical experts.

8. Movement and Provocation
These two fundamental aspects combined form the root of Lateral Thinking and veer people away from traditional thought and reasoning (de Bono 1982). Deliberate provocation is implemented to break traditional patterns after deployment of movement. Provocation is the generation of new ideas stemming from provocative statements, designed to challenge limitations. De Bono describes (1982) movement as a new mental function acting as an alternative to judgment, hence allowing metamorphosis of provocative illogical ideas to those that are effective and pragmatic.

9. Six Thinking Hats
The Six Hats method is an expedient pragmatic technique maximising individual and group thinking.
The various Hats symbolise:
White hat information
Red hat: intuition and feeling
Black hat: caution and logical negative
Yellow hat: logical positive
Green hat: creative effort and creative thinking
Blue hat: control of the thinking process itself
Research undertaken of Hong Kong’s corporate world (Boulter 2006) attest that lateral thinking aids teams in functioning harmoniously together by sidelining strong egos. Productivity is increased by controlled use of particular modes of thinking to particular moments. Studies show (Curtis & Smith 1998; Mumford, Connelly & Gaddis 2003) the Six Hats method becomes rapidly entrenched in the organisational culture. De Bono (1996) lists IBM, Du Pont and Prudential as organisations who have incorporated the technique into management training with outstanding results.

Application to Business
The 21st century is characterised by the prevalence of ever-changing trends, fierce competition, fickle consumers, evolving environmental factors, frequent amendments to legislation, (Robbins et al. 2006) and requirements to perform despite constraints such as stretched budgets, unyielding management and corporate bureaucracy. Boasting staff capable of harvesting breakthrough ideas should not be by good fortune or accident. Employing the methods outlined previously will afford a corporation’s human resources with a systematic innovative thinking process. Creative thinking is a skill that can be learnt (Boulter 2006) and empowers people by expanding their natural abilities thus improving collaboration, productivity and profit.

Boulter (2006) believes the Six Hats method has facilitated business teams to work collectively, hence all present at meetings equally contribute towards achieving organisational objectives. Organisations such as Guinness, IBM and British Airways have also been utilising the method, of which Evans (1994) found a reduction of seventy five percent of meeting times in one company alone.

Corporations have an over reliance on empirical data, preferring to take simplistic routes to tackle today’s problems. The key to success is not the quantity of information and data, but in its application and deployment methods, the process of crafting new ideas by capitalising on existing knowledge and experience.

Numerous studies by Williamson (2001), Curtis & Smith (1998) and Mumford, Connelly & Gaddis (2003) substantiate that organisational success hinges on new attitudes towards innovation and creativity, urging management to embrace and welcome seemingly irrational new concepts, ideas and perceptions from their employees.

With originality being a scarce commodity in today’s world, lateral thinking is vital to not only survival, but success in the business arena. Improvements in quality and service are necessary, but insufficient. Creativity, innovation and the openness to questions one’s own assumptions are the only sustainable engines that will drive lasting, global success.

Society over emphasises the importance of capability, data and technology as tools for ensuring survival. De Bono (Lewis 2005) argues that it is creativity and innovation which delivers value; cautioning of the modern trend of believing that information in itself is adequate, that additional information, comprehensive analysis, concise judgement and quick action will resolve conflicts and inconsistencies. Business is becoming lax with their approaches to contemporary problems, preferring to rely on conventional solutions that place excessive reliance on the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. There are no misgivings that committing extra effort to think laterally will enhance an organisation’s bottom line exponentially by placing it not one step, but one block ahead of the competition.


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