Are you a lateral thinker?

Are you a lateral thinker?

Linear thinking is the hallmark of any good problem solver. The ability to decompose an issue, examine each part and then put everything back together in more efficient manner is core not only to a successful business, but a successful life.

At the same time, there are situations when a different approach is warranted; this might be referred to as break-through or out of the box thinking. I refer to this as lateral thinking, and it’s the ability to look across multiple linear functions to identify patterns.
I think that the best example of lateral thinking comes from a BBC television series called Connections.

In it, James Burke would describe how landing a man on the moon was the result of a love affair from the 1600s when Newton sought to impress a woman and made up his story of falling apples. Connecting the desire to impress a woman with the ability to put a man on the moon is far from intuitive, but in 30 minutes, Burke would help us realize how inextricable these two events were.

In recent years, Malcolm Gladwell  is another great example of a thinker who is able to identify concrete relationships between otherwise seemingly unconnected issues.

I’m not privy to the personal lives of Burke or Gladwell; from my own perspective, I think growing up exposed to different languages and cultures helped prime my brain to thinking sideways (laterally) more often than not.

I’m don’t where this sort of thinking comes from or even whether it can be taught, but here are my thoughts on how to think across an issue rather than hitting it head on:

  1. Don’t look at the problem, but at the source of the problem and ask, “Am I treating the symptom or the disease?” All too often, a performance issue can find root in a communication failure.
  2. Understand the big picture and context in which you’re operating. If sales are declining (for example), try to understand which variables are within your control and which are market-driven. Also, be sure to avoid shooting the messenger. Maybe your sales team needs to be revamped, but maybe you’ve got a great team and a poor product mix.
  3. Take a functional view of what you’re trying to accomplish. No process or business unit operates in a vacuum. As clichéd as it sounds, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Functional units exist because they rely on and support one another. Many business improvement efforts fail because efforts are taken in isolation, rather than holistically.

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