– What is lateral thinking?

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– What is lateral thinking?

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Lateral thinking is approaching a problem in a creative or unexpected way to solve it.

For example, imagine that a person has been stabbed, and the police sealed off the building and are investigating everyone present.

“We passed everyone through a metal detector and no one is carrying a weapon.” “Well, metal detectors only detect metal. Could there have been a knife made out of wood or plastic?”

“We frisked everyone, and no one is carrying a weapon.” “Does anyone have a prosthetic leg or other accessory they could hide the weapon in?”

“No one does.” “Is it possible the weapon no longer exists?”

“How could a solid weapon disappear?” “Perhaps it is not solid anymore. Is there a pool of water anywhere that was left behind by a knife made of ice?”

No one would ever leap immediately to the idea of an ice blade, or a leg prosthetic, or a wooden blade. It requires thinking creatively and questioning your own assumptions and biases to see how an unexpected situation could have occurred.

You can think of logic as vertical thinking, because, like a physical structure, it is built by layering dependent blocks on top of each other.

1. If A, then B.
2. And if B, then C.
3. Therefore, if A, then C.

You can see how number 3 is dependent on 1 and 2. Without those, you have no reason to believe that 3 is correct. Logic proceeds from the known as you try to answer the unknown. But your conclusions are always built on your starting knowledge and assumptions and the logical rules you follow. It’s a tower. You can reach great heights, but it can also come crashing down.

Sometimes it does.

Lateral thinking is about questioning the assumptions themselves. Looking at the logical rules themselves, and asking if they are sound. Sometimes you have to say “this foundation is crooked – we can’t build upward here – let’s move sideways and find a better spot to build on.”

I’ll use a really old example.

A father and son board a taxicab. En route to their destination, the taxicab crashes and the man is killed. An ambulance rushes the son to a hospital, where he is brought to the ER. A doctor is waiting there, ready in scrubs, but takes one look at the boy and says “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How is this possible?

In the old days, virtually all doctors were men and so the solution wasn’t obvious to people: the doctor is the boy’s mother.

These days we would have even more explanations: maybe the father is a trans man, maybe it’s an alternative family structure, etc.

But the point is that, to build the right logic tower, you need to start with the right assumptions. If you start with:

1. The father is dead
2. Doctors are men

…then you can’t solve the puzzle. No vertical arrangement of logical puzzle pieces on top of this foundation will stand.

So you need to work laterally to unwind those assumptions.

1. The father is dead.

Is this true? It seems straightforward.

2. Doctors are men.

Is this true? Is this *always* true? It’s not. You just thought laterally.

It basically means to approach a problem from a different angle. Most of the time the best thing to do is just approach straight on. Try the obvious answer. If you hear hoofbeats, try to find the horses. However, if you do that and it doesn’t work, then you may need to adjust your approach. Instead of just plowing straight ahead and banging your head against the wall step back and try a different angle, laterally.

If all attempts to locate those horses have failed, maybe we should at least check for zebras? Yeah it’s probably not zebras, but if it’s not impossible, and we’ve struck out with horses. So instead of stubbornly insists it MUST be horses let’s check for an alternative.

A real world example might be when they first started to work on the space shuttle. They needed to find a way to get through re-entry. The initial approach was to try and find a material that was light enough to make into the skin of the shuttle, but sturdy enough to survive reentry. It proved impossible. Such a material just didn’t exist and was beyond our tech to make. The solution was to change the question. We don’t actually need a material that can survive reentry, what we need is a material that can protect the shuttle during reentry. The thermal tiles that they came up with do not in fact survive reentry, at least not completely, but by burning off slow enough they allow the shuttle as a whole and the crew to survive by being the sacrificial lamb. The tiles had to be periodically replaced, but the shuttle overall was fine. (Aside from the infamous incident where the tiles were damaged of course and Columbia was destroyed on reentry)

A good example of lateral thinking can be seen on the British show called Taskmaster. This is a whole compilation of ‘lateral thinking’ approaches to tasks which essentially employ creative solutions.

https://youtu.be/6Rkpx2ypimk

This one maybe highlights it even better(same show):

https://youtu.be/4zFiR__fA-4

Great question with great responses. I love the practice with any question and find it quite mentally stimulating. But then I throw in the – if a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Peking, you get rain instead of sunshine in Central Park – and things get real clear.