Lateral Thinking

LateralThinking by EdwardDeBono

ISBN 0-06-090325-2 A book and a technique for coming up with new ideas more or less on demand.

LateralThinking is based on the idea that the brain is not a passive medium but an active one. Think of a tray full of gelatin. Pour hot water on it and rivulets will form. Pour more hot water on it, and the new hot water will tend to flow into the same rivulets that were formed by the old hot water. Ah yes, my brain's just like that :) This is how the brain works as a pattern-recognizing mechanism - it allows itself to be "imprinted" by patterns.

Unfortunately, this makes it very hard to be actually creative. Attempts to be creative result in paths going down the same darn rivulets that are already there. Cliches!

Creative ideas will be seen to be perfectly logical in retrospect, but logic will provide no way to bring them forth in the first place.

LateralThinking suggests ways to make creativity possible. The brain has to be provoked into considering paths it has never considered before. If you are trying to come up with an idea for X, one way to do this is to pick a random word Y out of the dictionary, and use its meaning to consider aspects of X. For example, Y may be green, in which case you might consider how X would be different if it were green.
This site looks promising: http://www.lateralpuzzles.com/.

On the contrary, I think that EdwardDeBono's point about LateralThinking is that it is used to generate possibilities as opposed to convergent thinking which excludes 'wrong' answers to arrive at the 'correct' solution. LateralThinking puzzles have always seemed like a bit of a misnomer to me as they have a predetermined, and usually bizarre, answer. A real LateralThinking puzzle would be something like "think of as many uses for a hard boiled egg as you can". This was quoted by either EdwardDeBono or TonyBuzan, and one creative answer was to slice it to form the pieces of a checkers set (white versus yellow).

I've always used the term LateralThinking as a way to differentiate from the 'obvious (but incomplete) solution'. It's not necessarily just coming up with a variety of new candidate solutions, it's also coming up with ones that are likely to work. Usually, the obvious solution is obvious because of its underlying assumptions. LateralThinking assumes that there is a solution, and looks for the underlying assumption(s) that are most likely to be wrong for the solution to exist.
This legend, the truth of which is not necessarily related to its value, concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen: "Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer."

One student replied: "Tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately.

He appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case. The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics.

To resolve the problem, it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer which showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes, the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn't make up his mind which to use.

On being advised to hurry up, the student replied as follows:

"Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.

"Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper's shadow, and thereafter it is simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.

"But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T = 2 pi sq root(l / g)."

"Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up."

"If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building."

"But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him 'If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this building'."

The student was Niels Bohr. That's a hoary joke I've come across many times, but I wasn't aware it was Niels Bohr. Do you have a reference to why you believe it was?

This story has nothing to do with Niels Bohr, it was written by Alexander Callandra in 1968 and is called Angels on a Pin, A Modern Parable.
LateralThinkingInExtremeProgramming examines the use of Lateral Thinking in this methodology.
See also: ThinkSideways, GordianKnot, FrameProblem

CategoryBook, CategoryCreativity

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