How to Maximise our Lateral Thinking Abilities

February 13, 2020

Our minds are trained to find and follow patterns. But some problems we face don’t fit into any known pattern, so how can we solve these? That’s what we’ll try to explain in this article.

brain colored in red

Vertical thinking

Since we were babies, we learn to identify patterns in the way we do things. We start by observing our parents and people around us. We proceed to experiment ourselves, and, through trial and error, we start building a database of patterns we can use to solve common tasks and problems more quickly and effortlessly. Let’s see how we learn something new.

The “Four Stages of Competence” are four stages which we follow until we learn something completely:

1) Unconscious incompetence

2) Conscious incompetence

3) Conscious competence, and

4) Unconscious competence

In the 1st stage, you don’t know that you do not know. In the 2nd stage, you are learning a new skill but still cannot perform it perfectly. In the 3rd stage, you are finally developing the skills, but it still takes a lot of energy to complete the task. The final stage, you don’t have to think about it anymore: it’s something that has moved into your subconscious, like walking. We watch adults do it all the time and around one year old we start experimenting. First, we try to grasp the standing up without falling down part. Then we start trying to place one foot in front of the other. We fall down many times. One day we won’t fall for a couple of steps. And the next day we are able to take more steps without falling. We are cementing the pattern of placing one foot in front of the other in our minds, as we repeat the process, so that one day we don’t even have to think about walking (4th stage). It just happens naturally! Maybe you haven’t thought about this, but every time you walk, you’re just repeating a pattern that you placed in your mind when you were little. The same happens with billions of small tasks we do every day.

This is vertical thinking.

Vertical thinking is a natural ability that we have to identify patterns and use them often to get tasks done or solve problems. This serves us well because it gives us the ability to get into autopilot and save energy and capacity to focus and think about bigger and more complex problems.

As Edward de Bono puts it in his book Lateral Thinking - An Introduction: “The functional organization of the mind as an optimizing system makes it interpret a situation in the most probable way. The order of probability is determined by experience and by the needs of the moment. Vertical thinking is high-probability thinking. Without such high-probability thinking, everyday life would be impossible. Every action and every sensation would have to be intensely analysed and carefully considered - nothing could ever be taken for granted.”.

Although vertical thinking is a great and indispensable tool for our brains, it has shortcomings. As it is trained to identify patterns and map them to solutions, sometimes it sees patterns that simply aren’t there and tries to apply a specific solution even when we keep getting negative results. This happens when we face new and complex situations. Our brain gets trapped and can’t acknowledge it doesn’t yet have a pattern for this new situation. If our brain is unable to identify a pattern, it won’t get a working solution, so how can we solve new and complex problems? This is where lateral thinking comes in.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is the ability our brain has to think outside the box, or, as Edward de Bono says, realise there is no box. Lateral thinking is something that is quite natural to all of us as children but gets increasingly difficult as we grow up. Don’t worry, we can all train our lateral thinking since this is a skill. How do we think laterally?

According to Edward de Bono we must follow these 4 principles/steps:

1) Recognition of dominant or polarising ideas

The first step is, quite obviously, to recognise when you’re getting stuck in a dominant idea. Again, many times our brain identifies a pattern that doesn’t exist. It is up to us to recognise when this happens. If you find yourself trying to apply a solution two or three times in a specific situation or problem, and it keeps failing, ask yourself if you are fixed to an idea.

2) Search for different ways of looking at things

After you’ve recognised you are fixed to a dominant idea, the next step is to let go of that idea and search for new ways of looking at the situation or problem. It helps if you ask questions. Questions lead to new information and new ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask what may seem stupid questions. Sometimes the oddest ones are the ones who end up helping us fix the situation. When on a team, different perspectives will help find the final solution, since you can build new ideas on top of other ideas.

3) Relaxation of the rigid control of vertical thinking

Once you’re ideating it’s important to relax and let go of our rigid ways of thinking. Which is to say we must be aware of the assumptions we’re making, rules we’re applying on ourselves or the situation or strict points of view. That's why kids have more innovative ideas than adults! If you do lateral thinking puzzles with your family, you will be surprised by the kids’ perspectives/ideas. We must question everything to get to the solution, even if it seems there are no hidden facts.

4) The use of chance

Many times, when faced with a new and different challenge chance plays a big role. Because we have to explore uncharted territory chance will guide us in a better or faster solution, or not.

Let’s give an example of a problem we can’t solve through our known patterns, one problem in which we’ll have to question assumptions and try new and different ideas. It’s an example from Edward de Bono’s book, that we’ve shortened for the purpose of this article.

We have a merchant who owes a huge amount of money to a money-lender. The money-lender, old and ugly, fancied the merchants’ daughter, so he proposed he would cancel the merchant’s debt if he could have the girl instead.

Both the merchant and the girl were horrified at the proposal. So, the money-lender proposed they would leave it to chance to decide. He would put a black and a white pebble in a money-bag and the girl would pick out one of the pebbles. If she picked out the black, she would marry him, and her father’s debt would be cancelled. If she picked the white, she would stay with her father and the debt would still be cancelled. If she refused to pick out a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.

Reluctantly, the merchant agreed. They were standing on a pebble-strewn path and the money-lender picked two pebbles. As he picked them up, the girl noticed he picked up two black pebbles and put them into the money bag. He asked the girl to pick out a pebble.

Imagine it was you. What would you have done if you had been the unfortunate girl? What type of thinking would you use to solve the problem? Invest some time to reflect and try some solutions!

“Vertical thinkers are concerned with the fact that the girl has to take a pebble. Lateral thinkers become concerned with the pebble that is left behind. Vertical thinkers take the most reasonable view of a situation and then proceed logically and carefully to work it out. Lateral thinkers tend to explore all the different ways of looking at something, rather than accepting the most promising and proceeding from that.”

Let’s go back to the pebble story…

The girl in the pebble story put her hand into the money-bag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall to the path where it was immediately lost among all others.

‘Oh, how clumsy of me’, she said, ‘but never mind - if you look into the bag you will be able to tell which pebble I took by the colour of the one that is left.’ Since the remaining pebble is of course black, it must be assumed that she has taken the white pebble, since the money-lender dared not to admit his dishonesty.

Lateral Thinking Workshops

We, Sofia and Ricardo, are enthusiasts of Lateral Thinking. In 2018, while searching for ideas to take to the #play14 unconference in Porto, Sofia proposed to Ricardo that they collaborate on building a game on this subject. Some time later, we had created a deck of cards which compiled a series of existing puzzles and games which allow people to experiment and practise this kind of thinking. The deck of cards and workshop we usually run is called Late King (LATEral thinKING). Soon we’ll make the deck available for anyone who wants to run it by themselves in their company, community or group of friends.

Learn more about their project here and here.

by Sofia Peixoto, Agile Coach at Critical Software and Ricardo Fernandes, Agile Coach at Nokia