Lateral Thinking VS Everyday Thinking By Sachi Sellasamy

Ron Barbaro of Prudential Insurance Canada used Lateral Thinking to develop “living benefits” - the product that generates much income in Life Insurance. It made him very wealthy and was partly responsible for Barbaro to become the President of Prudential Insurance USA and making it one of the largest insurance groups in the world. Before the concept of “living benefits” came about, insurance primarily benefited the next of kin. ‘Vith “living benefits” the benefits could also be enjoyed by the policy holder. Many others in sales, agencies and even militaryi public, non-profit and voluntary work have found the benefits of Lateral Thinking. What is this magic and why is it different from the everyday thinking that we do? 

Lateral Thinking was developed by Dr. Edward de Bono, a prodigy who went to university at fifteen and became a medical doctor at twenty-one and held positions at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. The Oxford Dictionary says Lateral Thinking is a “method of solving problems by indirect or illogical methods”, which is only part of the story To appreciate the need for Lateral Thinking or LT, we have first to understand the limitations of everyday thinking.

Dr. Edward de Bono says that currently our thinking is not only inadequate but its nature is not to be creative. The reason for this, says de Bono, is that the primary function of the mind is to process information, somewhat like a computer, but with a difference. While the computer works on the principle of GIGO (garbage in garbage out, or simple processing only) the human mind is such that even when we put good stuff in we may get garbage out. What this means is that the human mind has its own ability (perception) to process information. When the mind processes information, it sort of develops tracks and patterns. It develops a way we look at the world. This is referred to as our mind-set, thinking within the box, paradigms, etc. It is quite difficult to escape from the world view that we currently have unless we make a specific effort. This type of thinking is also referred to as vertical thinking which is what  we normally do daily. We use experiences and information to look for answers and ideas. This is the reason we often do not get unique or new ideas in brain—storming sessions. We are boxed in by our experiences and information. The ability to think outside of the existing patterns or outside the box is called Lateral Thinking. LT is then different from vertical thinking. It was also invented to differentiate from creative thinking. Creative thinking is a very broad concept and ideas could result from intuition and inspiration. To assist us in going beyond our current paradigms, and also not to just wait for inspiration or a chance event, de Bono has designed a number of LT tools that would assist in creative ideas. Individuals and organizations around the world have used these tools to great success, whether it is to solve problems or seek opportunities. LT tools allow us to go beyond our everyday thinking to get ideas for success. Let me share a short story that highlights creative thinking and the importance of ideas.

Take your mind to Kelantan in ‘rural’ Malaysia. For those of you who have not been there imagine hot (30+C) and humid jungle that is muddy with undergrowth. Two friends, Analytical Abu and Creative Cassim, both aged 10, walk 5. kilometres through secondary jungle everyday to school. To and from school they walk barefoot with the shoes hung around their neck to prevent them from being muddied. Analytical Abu does very well in school getting top marks while Creative Cassim also does well but was often reminded by the teachers to remain focussed.

One day while walking back from school they come face to face with a tiger. Abu immediately does analyses. The tiger is faster than humans and there was no way he could outrun it. He concludes that the tiger would pounce on him in a couple of seconds and he would be dead! From the corner of his eye he sees Cassim putting his shoes on and getting ready to run. Abu chides Cassim, “Don’t you know Cassim that the tiger can outrun you and that there is no escape?” Before he ran away, Cassim replied, “I don’t have to run faster than the tiger, Abu, I only have to run faster than you!”

 This simple story is to illustrate that our mind has been trained to be logical, process information and seek answers from patterns that are already there. Poor Abu who is “clever” because he has learned (memorised?) all the information and is adept at analysis and critical thinking which is thought in school, cannot think through when faced with a new situation and for which he was nor prepared. We need LT tools to escape the patterns (so that we are not eaten by the tiger) and obtain unique answers that will solve problems and open widows of opportunities. New ideas are the only way to ensure future success. The story also highlights the fact that creativity could be inborn but it is also a skill that can be learned by all.

Paradigms and mindsets are not the only problems as sociated with everyday thinking. There is also the problem of muddled or cluttered thinking. Have you been in situations where the speaker or writer has taken you on so many journeys that you and probably the speaker, have lost track of what the whole point is about? I hope that this article is not one of those journeys. Organization of the thought process is also a prerequisite for better and faster decisions. For better decisions, we have to be aware of the different ways we could consider a particular issue. From his studies, de Bono has identified that there are six types of thinking that we should be aware of. Using the analogy of a hat and colours to represent each of the different types of thinking, de Bono has developed the Six Thinking Hats. This is a powerful tool to help us organise the thought process and also to bring about more effective and faster decisions. Ron Barbaro, whom we mentioned earlier, uses the Six Thinking Hats.

The Six Thinking Hats help in addressing yet another thinking problem that is current in everyday thinking. This is the use of critical thinking and debates in our society to explore the ‘truth’. This thinking model is borrowed from the Greek gang of three - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. While the system of debates does indeed explore issues, it also encourages a win—lose attitude. Thus you see lines drawn and sides taken on issues in Parliament and Law Courts. One side will not want to see the merit of the other’s proposal. This practice is seen in decisions in organizations and personal agendas ensure that proposals that have merit often cannot see the daylight. Using the Six Thinking Hats would allow for ‘parallel thinking’ in groups. This would provide for a more thorough exploration of issues and also faster decisions in groups, by ensuring that good proposals are given due hearing, deficient proposals are quickly abandoned, while keeping personal agendas and bloated egos at arm’s length.

While we understand the need for ideas, we are often constrained by our current thinking paradigms and styles. The opportunity is there for us to address the limitations. We can adopt thinking tools that would help us to organize our thinking, work in groups and also aid us in thinking outside the box. All it needs is the motivation and practice in using the tools.