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Updated: November 1, 2013 18:46 IST

Don’t wear blinkers!

Malini Seshadri
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Illustration by Keshav
The Hindu Illustration by Keshav

Lateral thinking is best suited for those knotty problems which serve up a “Catch 22” situation.

There was once an elderly woman who lived in a small English village called St. Mary Mead. She could crack murder mysteries that baffled the police. Things she saw or heard, no matter how inconsequential they would seem to others, would trigger memories of earlier events. Scenarios that were totally different (and yet not!). A conundrum about a missing umbrella would perhaps remind her of something the vicar said last month…and so on. And once she explained her thought process, everyone would say, “Of course!”

Jane Marple, famous amateur sleuth and brilliant creation of Agatha Christie, was a lateral thinker. Only, she didn’t know it, because she did much of her best work long before Edward de Bono coined the term “lateral thinking” in the year 1967.

The ability to get into lateral thinking mode is a very valuable life skill. Why? Because life presents a series of problems big and small (sorry folks, but that’s the hard truth!) and quite a few of these call for unconventional approaches.

If you like trying to solve riddles, you are probably already a lateral thinker, or at least primed to be one. For instance, one like this:

The police had information that the suspect they were looking for was a man named James, and that he was at that moment in a particular room of a particular house. They raided the house and entered the room. They found four people, a carpenter, a mason, a plumber and an electrician, playing cards around a table. The police went straight to the mason and told him, “James, you are under arrest.” How did the police know? [If you can’t work out the answer, write to me and I promise to reveal it!]

Real life situations

But in real life, the problem is seldom laid out for you like this in black and white. So first you would have to cut the clutter and get your facts straight. There are situations aplenty when you are stumped to pick a solution out of those that seem to be on offer. You may be making problem-solving and decision-making much harder than they need to be because you are clinging to pre-conceived ideas. Such ideas are incredibly difficult to uproot, like old habits that die hard. But often the best move may be to widen your range of options. Click on the ‘drop down menu’ in your mind and examine whether there are options you may have overlooked.

However, lateral thinking is best suited for those knotty problems which serve up “Catch 22” situations (you can’t get X unless you first get Y, but you can’t get Y unless you get X first!) This is when you stop examining the alternative solutions and start examining the problem itself.

Remember, lateral thinkers don’t wear blinkers!

Lateral thinking is more than just a problem-solving tool. It is a spur to creativity. Impressionist painters, mathematicians, scientists and even a copy writer in an advertising agency, owe their creativity to lateral thinking.

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