Lateral thinking goes against the grain for many businesses, but the benefits are too powerful to ignore.
In the current business world, where incredible changes are taking place, the time is right for us to be employing more lateral thinking processes to respond to the problems, opportunities and challenges we are facing. Our traditional way of thinking - logical or vertical thinking - while great for certain tasks, is not enough to get the best results.
So are you a lateral thinker? To answer this, you must know the difference between logical thinking and lateral thinking.
Let me give you a quick test: a man works on the 14th floor of a building. Each day he catches the lift to the 10th floor and takes the stairs to the 14th floor. At the end of the day, he catches the lift to the ground floor. Why is this? (try to work it out before looking at the answer at end of article).
We have all been taught from our early years to use logical and vertical thinking.
It is built on anchors and a series of steps that lead us to a viable solution. Each step of the way has to be "right" before we logically move to the next step. Using this approach, we tend to stop looking for solutions once we come to what we think is right. If you want the answer to two plus two, there is no need to look beyond four.
A consequence of logical thinking processes is the peer pressure that comes with them. Peer pressure and conformity kill off a lot of great ideas. Businesspeople have developed a plethora of negative language which is used to kill off non-conforming ideas - "That won't work", "it isn't practical" or simply "No". As soon as someone starts to look laterally at problems, the logical majority shuts them down.
In Africa, transporting water was a big problem using square water containers, because they were heavy and difficult to move. Then someone came up with a doughnut-shaped container that could be filled and then rolled, allowing even a young child to move a large amount of water. Some companies could never come up with this type of solution because the concept would have been canned before it was given time to breathe.
Lateral thinking, however, is quite different. You know when lateral thinking is at work, because often you all go "wow" - where did that come from? When someone comes up with true lateral thought, it's akin to an alien landing in the middle of the conference room table.
Lateral thinking is all about finding more options and not being judgmental at this stage of the process. No idea is too far-fetched. Ideas feed other ideas. Everyone can contribute and no one is wrong. It sounds chaotic, but out of this can come solutions that you would never have dreamed of.
In business today, we are just not developing enough possibilities. We are all rushed and when we come up with a solution that seems to tick the right boxes, we're off into implementation mode. Wouldn't it be better to spend a bit more time looking carefully at the options before we got started? Sadly, businesses tend to use known lateral thinkers as a last resort, when all the logical thinking has failed, rather than employing these techniques from the beginning.
So, can you learn to think laterally? The answer is yes. The benefits for you could be significant. Leaders assign great importance to people who can think "outside the square". It's a way to differentiate yourself from others.
Many great inventions were in fact mistakes or came about as a result of looking at something from a different perspective. Lateral thinking is all about looking more closely at things, turning them upside down and inside out. You do not set out initially to find a solution, but options. From these options, you develop more options and potentials - from which, hopefully, springs a solution.
The difficulty most businesses will find if they want to introduce lateral thinking processes is to counter the negative logical thinking culture. It's hard to break these age-old habits. For most business activities, logical thinking has been the order of the day. We order stock, it arrives, we warehouse it, we sell and distribute it. Logical thinking is all about order.
For lateral thinking to take hold, staff must be given permission to engage in lateral thinking, to move from an ordered way of looking at things and come up with alternatives. Support needs to be given to ideas that, on the face of it, may seem outlandish or downright silly. Whatever the option, it needs to be written down, taken seriously and analysed for potential benefits.
Who would have thought 20 years ago that playing Barry Manilow songs in public places would solve the problem of loitering youths?
Introducing lateral-thinking processes can lead your business to higher profitability and will produce a more creative, open working environment. Tapping into the potential of lateral thinking may be the source of the only competitive advantage you have in a competitive world.
And finally, the answer to the earlier question (and potentially one of many answers) is that the man is very short and can only reach the 10th floor button.
Craig McIvor is the managing director of Corporate Management Advice which works with businesses in New Zealand to assist them with growth strategies(managementadvice.org)