Development Manager, Nokia
One day I was talking with a colleague who said that everybody talks about the importance of being innovative and creative but she didn’t feel that she could be like that. I think that creativity is somewhat connected with our genes, but there must be something that can help everybody to think creatively. I searched Amazon.com and came across the bookLateral Thinking—Creativity Step by Step by Edward de Bono (Harper & Row, New York, 1970).
In his book, de Bono talks about vertical and lateral thinking, stating that lateral thinking is needed in creativity and innovation. Vertical thinking is the traditional step-by-step thinking in which you eliminate options, whereas lateral thinking is used to create more options. “With vertical thinking one concentrates and excludes what is irrelevant, with lateral thinking one welcomes chance intrusions” (p. 40). de Bono explains the nature of lateral and vertical thinking. He also offers many tools that can be used actively; therefore, the book is not about theory, but practice.
The most basic tool in support of lateral thinking is to generate as many alternatives as possible without judging them immediately. One may set a quota that must be met before work proceeds. For example, you could request five different solution alternatives to a problem. When thinking vertically, one is tempted to select the first viable option that comes to mind, but the lateral way forces you to come up with other ideas. They may sound stupid at first, but they may generate new thoughts that lead to a good solution. The point is to delay the judgment in the idea-generation phase so that new ideas can really be processed.
The book offers many other tools as well. Fractionation is used to divide a problem into smaller parts and then see whether the parts can be combined in new ways to find a different end result. Reversal means looking at ideas from the opposite direction and see what happens. For example, you are designing a content management system and one of the aspects you are planning is version control. You have the idea that you need to have version control, but what if you thought about not needing a version control? What kind of ideas and solutions would that generate? Selecting the entry point, the first thing you start analyzing in a problem, and changing the attention area, thinking about some other aspect of the problem, are also things you can vary to generate new lines of thought. One interesting technique is random stimulation, in which you bring a random word or object into the discussion and see what kinds of thoughts are generated. You can select the word from a dictionary or from a newspaper, just as long as it is random. Suddenly, you might find yourself thinking about “kangaroo” when discussing architecture of the documentation.
After selecting the entry point, the first thing is to start analyzing a problem and changing the attention area, thinking about some other aspect of the problem. This shift of attention can help you generate new lines of thought.
Another interesting technique is random stimulation, in which you bring a random word or object into the discussion and see what kinds of thoughts are generated. You can select the word from a dictionary or from a newspaper, just as long as it is random. Suddenly, you might find yourself thinking about “kangaroo” when discussing the architecture of the documentation.
At the end of the book, de Bono introduces a new word, “po.” According to de Bono, po could be used instead of “no” to state “I’m just introducing provocative information without placing any judgment on whether it is right or wrong.” It is used to challenge the current idea without saying that the idea in itself is right or wrong, it just brings a new point-of-view to the discussion. Naturally, to be able to use “po,” all individuals in the discussion would need to be aware of it and what it means.
I think the book introduces a lot of good ideas that can be used in real life to generate innovative ideas and move forward in a discussion that seems to be at a dead-end. The main message is that one should allow time for thinking before making selections. Using vertical thinking and making logical selections and moving forward may naturally lead to good solutions, but accepting controversial ideas into the discussion may actually lead to better solutions. Or, one may get to the same conclusion faster than one would have done with vertical thinking. The book is written as an instructor guide. It contains a lot of exercises that can be used when teaching others these techniques. Most of the examples and exercises are shown in a group situation, but one person can use them as well. Although the book is old, the ideas are still very valid, and I intend to use them in daily work. After reading the book, I have paid attention to these things in meetings and have noticed how easily we dismiss ideas that don’t seem reasonable at first glance. We try to go as fast as possible to the “correct” solution. I think that allowing some more time to come up with different kinds of solutions would enable us to innovate and perhaps come up with solutions that will eventually save more time and resources than the “obvious” solution that is generated in a short time.
This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.