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Forget logic, think laterally

Coming up with new ideas is a hard, long and exhausting process. But does it have to be so?


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Nadiya Abrosimova

a year ago | 7 min read

Imagine a situation where you are trying to find a way to solve a problem. If you are thinking logically, every idea you get is a simple copy of the idea, created by someone else. The harder you try, the easier you fall into the trap of thinking that everything has already been created and you are not so talented or creative after all.

Coming up with new ideas is a hard, long and exhausting process. But does it have to be so?

The truth is, there is no single solution for any situation, and our task is to simply see a problem from various perspectives.

Creativity is the ability to switch between abstract and concrete at the right time. It’s also the ability to switch between different levels of abstraction, quickly find associations and build associative series.

When do you need to be concrete?

When you are concentrating on achieving a goal. Instead of thinking about a vague goal like “I want to be rich and famous” you can formulate it like that “I want to find another job, learn a new skill, make a great speech at a conference”. This makes your goal understandable and easier to reach.

When do you need to be abstract?

While looking for new, original and efficient solutions.

For example, your task is to connect two pieces of material. If you think concrete, the first optimal way is to sew them together.

But if you take a broader look at the task, you may see that there are also other ways: you can make a button, a hook, punch several holes and tie them with a thread, use glue, etc.

The term lateral thinking was invented by Edward de Bono. By lateral he means not a traditional or expected method of thinking, but a way to find original ideas, even break the rules. Thinking laterally looks a bit like brainstorming. When logic is useless, lateral thinking comes in place.

Logical thinking looks clear and straight-forward:

While lateral thinking looks sort of weird:

Before looking into lateral thinking techniques that we can use to solve problems or find new opportunities, let’s see how our brain works.

How our brain works

There are no left and right-brained people, or someone who is naturally creative and others who aren’t.

We all have 3 brain network systems that scientists call:

  • executive attention network
  • default network (imagination)
  • salience network
  1. To activate the executive attention network, you simply need to ask the right question, and that’s surprisingly the hardest thing to do. To get the best possible outcome, craft your question carefully to give your brain the right way to go.
  2. Then just stop thinking, don’t concentrate on anything, take some rest, go for a walk or take a shower — it will engage the default network.
  3. The salience system works like a switcher between the previous 2 systems. It will choose the best way to solve a task based on your previous experience and knowledge. It also monitors the internal stream of consciousness and chooses the most salient information to solve the task.

Ask the right question

The idea you want to come up with may refer to problem-solving, but not always. It can also be about finding new ways to work efficiently or it can refer to innovation and inventions.

Anyway, to make the goal you want to achieve tangible, simply:

  1. Formulate the question and write it down.

It’s hard to ask the right question. You may be surprised to find out that the question you’re asking doesn’t make any sense, so you need to think of a better question.

To understand the insights and better formulate the goal, use question contractions like:

when X, I want Y so / I do or be Z

When I decide to go to the cinema and watch the “Star Wars” new episode, I want to see all the movie showtimes in all the cinemas near me to choose the most appropriate one.

Like [WHO], I [WANT], because [WHY]

Like a person who doesn’t know how to use photoshop, I want to create a beautiful brochure using a special easy to use program or template, since this will save me time and money to hire a designer.

Why? Why? Why?

A user unsubscribed from receiving emails:

  • Why? They clicked the unsubscribe button
  • Why? They don’t want to receive emails
  • Why? Emails irritate them
  • Why? They don’t see any point in these emails
  • Why? They haven’t received a useful email yet
  • Why? They receive too many emails and there is no time to look through each of them
  • Why? They haven’t seen any interesting and catchy titles that would force them to open an email

2. Try to find the most suitable definition of the problem and an approach to how it could be solved.

For example, you want to open a bottle of wine but you don’t have a corkscrew.

You can assume that your goal is to get the cork out of a bottle, so you can use a knife to try doing just that. However, is it really what your goal is? I bet, what you’re looking into here, is to get the wine out of the bottle, not the cork. For this reason, the idea to push the screw inside the bottle might be a better one.

Or another example. Say, it takes you 2 hours to commute to work because of traffic jams and this frustrates you.

You can think like this:

“How do I not get frustrated about the traffic jams?”
“How do I reduce the number of cars in the city”
“What transport can I use to get to work faster?”

The problem is the same, but different questions lead to different solutions. You can classify the approaches in the following way:

  • don’t pay attention to the traffic jams
  • reduce traffic jams
  • change your commute
  • change the place where you live or work
  • change your schedule
  • get the car, which can fly 😲

50% of success in generating new ideas depends on the question. It has to be clear, understandable and meaningful.

The next 50% is related to the method you will choose to select the right idea. Let’s see how to deal with it.

How do you come up with new ideas?

An idea may come from your previous experience. In this case, your brain could unconsciously select the best idea and give it to you. Once you formulate the question you may find an already known pattern of how to solve it and it’s great.

But sometimes, an idea can be new. There are several methods to stimulate yourself in generating new ideas:

  1. Alternatives: Look for different ways to solve problems.

If the idea we come up with to solve a problem is very expensive, not so effective, and hard to implement, we can think about alternative ways.

Instead of building a new railway station to a locality, we can add more buses, which solves the same problem — the ability to get to the place.

2. Random entry: Be open to different lines of thought

You can do a simple exercise. Select random words and write them down. Then select any word randomly. To select a random word, you can enumerate all your words and then sum up today’s date to get a random word you’re looking for.

Try to combine this word with your question. For example, you chose the word “stairs,” and your question is “How do I increase sales?”

Stairs + ways to increase sales = discount program with different levels.

3. Challenge: Think in non — traditional ways

Here is a true story. People complained that the elevator is moving too slowly. The company-owner understands that people are complaining because it’s boring to wait until the elevator arrives at the needed floor, so instead of making the elevator faster which is expensive and time-consuming, they put the mirror inside the elevator.

4. Provocation: There are a few common provocation methods: exaggeration, understatement, refusal. You can turn any normal situation into a provocative one by using one of these methods. For example, what if a restaurant becomes such a big city? Will it bring us any new ideas on how to improve the customer journey?

5. Treatment of ideas: Alter ideas to fit different scenarios and use cases.

Mary as a product manager needs to know what each team member does to better manage the workload, while Alex as a developer needs to record his progress to be on the same page with the team.

One interesting way to evaluate ideas is by using a 6 hats method.

6 hats method

De Bono suggested that the use of six thinking hats will allow groups to avoid arguments and adversarial situations. Six hats can be used to increase team productivity.

White Hat — Facts

Yellow Hat — Logic

Red Hat — Emotions

Green Hat — Creativity

Black Hat — Judgement, Caution

Blue Hat — Control

When conducting a workshop using this method, we should choose a person who will control the process. This person is a moderator, and he or she will be wearing a blue hat.

White hat — here we get all the information about the topic. We look through every single point which is related and see the whole picture.

Everyone in the group wears the next 4 hats one by one.

The yellow hat is where we give logical ideas and suggestions.

Red hats express emotions related to the topic.

Green hats offer creative ideas, even impossible ones.

Black hats get involved at the end when it’s time to judge all the ideas. A critic is welcomed here.

After all of these exercises, we’ll get a lot of ideas. We can select them by voting for the best ones and move them to the next level. Conduct 6 hats method again and again until you feel that this is the best idea.

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper”.
Edward de Bono.

The last advice: keep a journal of everything that passes through your head, go deeper than others!

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Created by

Nadiya Abrosimova

Product Designer in Healthcare.


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