Lateral Thinking Techniques
by Jacquie Wise
In our desire to find the one ideal solution, we tend to overlook many little ways to improve a situation.
Many years ago, in one of my classes, I met a mature-aged man who provided me with a significant example of the way we tend to approach problem solving. I’ve changed the details to de-identify the story.
I was in the middle of explaining the principles of problem solving: ‘There is always a way to get around problems and obstacles’ I was saying. This man, whom we’ll call George, interrupted me with: ‘Rubbish! Some problems have no solutions!’
‘Well, there may not be a total solution, but there is likely to be a partial one…’
‘Well, if you are so clever, solve my problem then!’ demanded George. One part of me was eager to rise to the challenge. The other part of me thought ‘Uh-oh!’
The conversation went something like this:
‘I have had a bad back for many years and there is no medical solution. After sitting for too long, my back seizes up and I can hardly stand up straight. At home, I use a ray-lamp for 10 to 15 minutes whenever my back seizes up. The warmth eases my muscles.’ He described a small, inexpensive portable ray-lamp readily available from any department store.
‘I work in an open-plan office with uneven air conditioning and I sit right in the middle of a down-draught, which makes my back worse.’ he said. ‘So fix that problem!’
He grinned at me smugly, convinced he’d check-mated me.
‘Can you move your desk away from the down draught?’
‘No, because I share a work station with someone else and we can’t move the computer.’
‘What kind of chair do you have—does it support your back properly?’
‘No it’s awful. It’s a chair just like these.’ He indicated the stackable chairs in the classroom, with padded seats and a gap between the seat and the padded back. ‘The draught hits me right in my lower back.’
‘Can you change the chair?’
‘No. I asked, but they refused to get me another chair.’
I suspected he might have a right to ask for more appropriate, ergonomic chair, but thought it best to keep to ideas within his control. So I said instead:
‘Why not buy your own chair?’
‘Why should I? It’s not up to me to buy their office furniture!’
‘Well, no, but since you spend so much time seated, investing in your own chair might be worthwhile. Of course you would take it with you if you left.’
He didn’t like that idea at all. OK—we need another strategy.
‘What about a small sheepskin rug over the back of the chair, to stop the draught coming through?’
‘Sheepskins fall down and wrinkle—they’d be uncomfortable.’
‘You could try a car-seat cover, or sew elastic straps onto a sheepskin to hold it onto the chair.’
‘I can’t sew.’
‘Isn’t there anyone who could sew them on for you?’
‘No, and anyway I don’t like to ask favours.’
Since the point I was trying to illustrate was how lateral thinking can help find all kinds of different solutions to problems, I moved on to another idea. The other participants were getting it. Grinning from ear to ear behind their hands.
‘Could you bring your ray lamp to work—or if they’re so cheap, why not buy another one to keep at work?’
‘The point is, I can’t move! Besides, the ray lamp has to be projected onto skin and it’s not exactly appropriate for me to keep stripping!’ He scoffed at me.
‘Well, the whole idea is for you to use the lamp before your back seizes up to the point that you can’t move. And if only the lumbar region needs to be exposed, can’t you disappear into the washroom for a few minutes and lift your shirt just a bit?
‘It’s too complicated.’
By this time the other participants were battling to control their giggles.
‘Ok—well—if you need warmth, what about a hot water bottle?’
‘They get too hot. I’d get burnt.’
‘You don’t have to fill it with boiling water and besides, you can get hot water bottle covers.’
‘Oh, can you? Well, anyway, I am too far from the coffee facilities to use a kettle. And then the bottle would need emptying… I can’t keep going backwards and forwards to refill it.’
‘What about keeping a kettle near your desk. You could empty the bottle whenever you go to the men’s room and keep the kettle filled for when you need it.’
‘I’d be tripping over all the wires.’
At this point, sniggers exploded into guffaws of laughter. George began to look a bit sheepish.
‘Is there a filing cabinet or bookshelf on which you could keep the kettle out of the way?
‘Yes, but it would look untidy.’
‘You could consider a wheat bag to heat up in the microwave.’
‘It would fall all over the place.’
At this stage, I decided the conversation had gone on long enough, even though there were other options we could have explored. It seemed everyone except George had seen the point.
‘Well, George, I am just trying to illustrate that, although your back problem is permanent, any one of these ideas might help alleviate the pain a little. Each idea on its own is not a solution, but in combination, they could make a difference.’
I went on to emphasise again that in our tendency to look for the ideal solution, we often miss little options that would at least improve the situation. Any small improvement is better than nothing…
George sat silent, deep in thought. At the end of the class, he came up to me with tears in his eyes.
‘I want to thank you,’ he said, ‘I realise I’ve never known how to be happy. I can understand now how my life has turned out the way it has. It all seems so obvious now. I’ve wasted so many years…’ he couldn’t continue, the tears choking his voice.
But then his face lit up and he said ‘But I’m not going to waste any more! Now I have a plan and I know how to go about making it happen! I’m not going to make the same mistakes again—and I can even see the funny side!’
Oh, George! Now it was my turn to be moved to tears.
Let’s see if we can unpack some techniques of lateral thinking out of this story:
Lateral thinking involves looking at a problem from all sides, rather than from a single, linear perspective, A linear perspective would have us trying to fix a back ailment for which there is no remedy. The aim with lateral thinking is to generate new ideas, even if apparently unrelated.
It’s important to set aside judgement. As with any brainstorming exercise, the silliest ideas can often hold the best answers.
1 First, I unpack the problem by looking for key words or characteristics: draught; warmth; back muscles seizing up.
2 Second, taking each word one by one, I mentally brainstorm ideas. For example:
sheepskin rug/carseat cover
second ray lamp
hot water bottle
heated wheat bag
3 Next, I unpack each of those words with further ideas on how to implement them.
That part is a logical action-planning process. Those ideas, in turn, may lead to other new ones.
I’ve used the word ‘unpack’ a few times in this article. The word brings to mind a strong image for breaking down an issue into the smallest of its components, just like unpacking a suitcase so you can see what’s inside.
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