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: