Lateral Thinking

‘You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper’. This is easy to understand.  One does not have any problems in doubting the practicality of such an action. To dig a new hole one has to dig in a new place. But if we metaphorize this hole digging and liken it to problem solving, it is clear how often we human beings try the same known way of solving problems though they don’t bring us the desired result. Lateral thinking is all about daring to think differently.

Normally, we wish for problems as we’d wish for food-poisoning or something equally horrible. Our normal reactions when approaching problems are panic, horror and a sense of desolation. Lateral thinking is all about daring to think differently. It treats problems, a dreaded enemy, as an important ally.

If you thought that ‘Lateral thinking’ is one of those new outlandish psychological self-help techniques with an exotic name, it’s time to think again. The term coined by Edward De Bono has a place in the Oxford Dictionary and according to Bono had more people dared to think in this manner our civilization would have been three or four hundred years more advanced than what it is now.

The discussion on Lateral Thinking took place in a workshop arranged by KZR Associates and facilitated by Kamran Rizvi. Although the prospect of thinking continuously and that too laterally which I must confess I didn’t know a thing about, seemed rather daunting, it turned out to be a rather refreshing experience after all.

To get to lateral thinking, we needed to understand what normal or vertical thinking is. It is a finite process which is logical and follows a sequence. One leads to two which leads to three. Each step in this thinking makes sense. It is using deductive reasoning to sort things out. It is how most of us think.

Lateral thinking is non-sequential. One is not  necessarily followed by two or three. Thus each step does not have to be correct and neither does it always make sense. It is a ‘apparently’ illogical way of finding solutions.

The first question that arises is ‘Why think differently if the normal way of vertical thinking solved our problems effectively?. The answer is that its perfectly all right to keep using our ‘normal’ ways as long as they serve  the purpose and we get what we want. But the life graphs of very few of us take a comfortable curvy middle line. In most cases sharp veers greet us and we are challenged with many uncomfortable situations. To handle these we need to think in a different way and dig a different hole in a new place.

Thus both forms of thinking complement each other. Some lines from the Workshop manual explain it beautifully – ‘Lateral thinking is like a reverse gear in a car. One would never try to drive along in reverse gear the whole time. On the other hand one needs to have it and to know how to use it for manoeuvrability and to get out of a blind alley’. Lateral  thinking generates ideas while Vertical thinking thinking is useful for developing them.

Having established the differences between the two types of thinking;  and that we were to think wild but not at the cost of  abandoning all caution we proceeded to learn techniques to help us think in a new way.

Most of the techniques and exercises carried out in workshops apparently seem to have no bearing on real life situations. The purpose however, is to open the mind and create awareness about how it can be used in a different way to deal with the challenging situations life provides us with.

A figure was shows on the projector and participants wrote different descriptions for this object (there are more than thirteen we came up with ranging from a tent to a pocket). When we free our mind from its ways of looking at things, we discover alternative ways.

Further, different people view objects/situations according to their own perceptions and we need to have an open mind to accept others views as well.

Everybody also got a chance to be an artist. We drew the faces of the person sitting next to us. Needless to say they were all ‘revenge pieces’.

However, the next step was to draw parts of a picture bit by bit (the whole picture was hidden) which seemed like a lot of scraggly lines and scribblings. The aim of the exercise was to trust each step although it didn’t seem to make any sense and seemed pretty silly. The end result was – almost – master pieces.

Another exercise depicting our resistance to change was to stand facing other participants in pairs and progressively change certain things about our attire. Since this in a conference room with limited resources is  a bit tedious, most felt bored and found the exercise difficult to carry out. This game play reflected that changing ourselves and paddling about in unfamiliar waters is always difficult.

When we think the going’s too tough, we may decide to revert to our normal ways but if we push on through denial and confusion accepting this as ‘normal’, we can traverse the change matrix and enter the renewal stage.

Some other techniques useful in developing a lateral way of thinking are brainstorming (when even the most bizarre and wildest idea has a place on ones list), challenging the necessities of boundaries and limits, innovation (restructuring information) and suspending judgement, and our need to be right all the time.

Lateral Thinking is about dealing with the shades of grey that exist between the black and white of this world. It urges one to literally ‘grow up’ and keep an open mind, obtain all the information one can and then draw conclusions.

Perhaps knowing some of the logics behind our illogical ways can help us understand ourselves better and think more often – more laterally, to achieve dynamism and live up to our fullest potential.





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