Lateral thinking, creativity when you need it.


I am writing this not from an expert stand point but as a professional who demands use of varied levels of thinking and decision making. This read is meant toward similar audience in mind. Some of the ideas mentioned in this article are borrowed from popular studies and thought leaders in the field of design and metacognition. The school of thought described here are intended to bring clarity to thought and understand how the brain works. Thus helping you to create and develop better future for yourself and others.

HOW ? WHY ? and WHAT ?

How do you formulate thinking? Why is it important to define thinking ? Why thoughts originate at familiar point ? When do you stop thinking and act? Why we think in similar pattern? These are some of the questions that will shine light on your thinking habits.

Broadly one is considered a analytical thinker and a creative thinker. However, these are mere generalization made for simplicity of categorization, which by itself show how we think. Major contributors to science are vastly creative and analytical thinkers. They are not much different from general public, except for the fact that we are encouraged not to think and question stuff. Through education most of us are conditioned to think "what is" and not why, how and what could be. Its only from these higher level questions can we start a new path to better solution. This is not be blaming the educational system, as it trying its best to help people make sense of chaos and even make livelihood. It is better than nothing. Still, there are whales for improvement.

Have you noticed your thought patterns when you are trying to solve a problem? Do you analyze the situation part by part or do you make associations with what you have already experience? or do you brainstorm for alternatives ? Probably one or combinations, but we are usually unaware of the process. Sometimes we think linearly using cause-effect and sometimes we associate concepts and ideas to form new once that would lead to an entirely new solution. Through deliberate and conscious thinking you can get past uncertainty and make decisions with clarity, even more, make creativity something that is always available. Most of the reference for this article is based of off Edward de bono books. This will also help you understand the stages of design thinking and why we do what we do. For those who are new to design thinking, it is the popular method used in saving complex problems that has lots of uncertainties. They are used in design and development of products, services, marketing and behavioral designs.

What is vertical/linear thinking?

You could think of vertical thinking as the analytical and linear process that helps us tackle through every day problems and decisions making. One must not misunderstand it with intuition which is subconscious and non-deliberate. We are instinctive creatures and it is what makes most of our life’s decisions. These are habits, routines and attitude towards that particular subject that least need our thinking. The few moments when we are deliberately intervening our intuitive reaction is what we are discussing here. Vertical thinking uses fundamental logics that are formed based on information In hand, past experiences, future needs and current perspectives. These factors form a path in our neural network connecting memories and ideas. This way of thinking are like roads you use every day to commute to work, familiar and needs less attention. When there’s high traffic in one area you take the other short-cut you are already familiar with. It represents cause-effect, reasoning, usefulness and decisions are made with simple yes-no. Vertical thinking help stay on subject in hand so that the solutions are relevant to the problem. It has a set origin of thought very much related to the problem that you are trying to solve.

If you are aware of how the brain works, you must know that we are pattern forming creatures, and we recall and think in a particular pattern when faced with choices. Availability heuristics, Streetlight effect and Representative heuristics are few biases that tag along in our vertical thinking process. The chances of getting to a breakthrough idea or alternate best is less in the vertical thinking. The more you use a certain method to solve problems the more it get stronger, the more you use it, the cycle continues. This keeps you away from other probably better alternatives. This is not just a pattern issue but the origin of thinking, we could refer to it as framing. The solution that you reach is very much correlates to the way you frame your problem. For this reason quality time and effort must be used to identify the problem, framing the problem in multiple ways is important in any design process. One way this is tackled in the industry is by getting insights from multiple disciplines, and stakeholders.

As designers we are well aware of schema/schemata or otherwise known as mental model. One of the reason why a user research is important is to understand the mental model of the user. What the user knows and how the user makes associations? These remain considerably similar among groups(age, gender, culture, career..)/communities/niece. I am not trying to judge or discriminate, difference in mental models does not make someone better or worse. The more you understand your thoughts and the process behind them you can get an advantage over it and use them sensibly, but, only to a certain level. Mental heuristics have evolutionary origin and may be hard for some to notice them when they come by. These are topic for another article, however if your are deliberate in your thoughts you can prevent negative implications of heuristics, still, up to a level. This will require creative power or use of lateral thinking tools.

What is Lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking is non-linear process of thought that disregard feasibility of outcome, but rather moves from alternatives to alternatives. It is the process of deviating from the normal pattern of thought. This is where new ideas are! This thinking might seem obscured for many as we are thinking from the normal linear process. Some of you might have already decided why it is useless. It is only when one understands that there are better alternatives we are able to venture into other territories, cross over departments to generate disruptive innovations. This is certainly hard to come by from the normal line of thinking. As vertical thinking would kill a usable idea, thinking it is off topic. Even though one could build upon it or even use parts of the idea to form new once.

It is crucial to know that it is not possible to choose either one of them to achieve a certain outcome. It is the combination of vertical and lateral thinking that will get you to a fruitful and innovative solution. Being deliberate about the mode of thinking or even better being deliberate about the process of thinking can aid you in the same.

As mentioned earlier it starts with the realization that alternates exists. If one thinks that the current solution is the best solution, he/she is not motivated to put effort in thinking laterally. A different way to approach this idea in an organizational setting could be to look at organization as a multi-minded system and encouraging employee feedback no matter how dumb they sound. Often times, when an idea is generated by an employee from non specific department, it is killed my himself/herself thinking that his bosses knows the best. It is evident that human beings are limited in many things and mental capacity is one among them, once the idea is killed it does not evolve or does not reach someone who could make something out of it. These type of approaches are commonly found in design driven organizations. As per McKinsey Design Index, design driven organizations have 200% better revenue compare to the reset. In such organization, it is common to see the design team involving multiple disciplines in problem solving. This adds in new perspectives that would have been impossible through just C-suit or just the design team itself.

As individuals who are faced by impossible obstacles, just by being aware of thought patters we can induce a lateral thinking tool to get clever solutions, which you might have never thought of otherwise . For creatives and decision makers it makes sense to use it as often as possible to generate possibilities.

Lateral thinking vs Creativity

Lateral thinking has its link to creativity, you could consider lateral thinking as a systematic way of generating novel ideas. It’s not wrong to say some people are more creative than others. For those with less creative confidence can use the lateral thinking to generate unique perspective and for those creatives, instead of waiting for the creative spark, they could use lateral thinking to generate ideas quickly. As a designer, when projects are to be delivered with short notice it does not seem practical to wait for creative flower to bloom.

An analogy : Evolution is random mutation in gene where new trades are formed randomly across population. However, all this genes may not pass over generations, in order for a mutated gene to survive it should pass natural selection (combination of random stuff that doesn’t matter), the mutation may also influence the environment that causes deviation in natural selection. Similarly, generation of unrelated, alternate and bizarre concepts are mandatory for a product, service, business and society to evolve. It is mandatory and makes sense when you look things in a holistic view. The more you conceptualize the “what is” more you realize that there is no one way of doing things. We need both linear and lateral thinking in betterment of society and for better human experience.

How to use lateral and vertical thinking ?

One way to approach, though not the only approach is , to define an outcome through vertical thinking, which is by using data and logic, then put on a creative hat to generate large quantity of alternate ways in achieving that goal. The trick here is to separate yourself from vertical thinking completely by not being critical while developing these ideas. (this is the purpose of separating the thinking process, so one does not intervene with other simultaneously)

The ways of generating ideas through a lateral thinking approaches are many, some of them include abstract laddering, concept blending, first principle, 5 whys, random word technique, brainstorming, etc. You could read more about them individually using a simple google search. When you are doing idea generation with someone it is best to let them know not to classify the idea and to disperse judgment.

Many believe that lateral thinking and creativity are useful only when faced by new challenges, however time and again it is proven that current best is not the only way. With systems thinking one would understand that system changes itself when an idea becomes dominant.

Thank you,