How To Use Lateral Thinking To Find Innovation

Lateral thinking can unlock creativity.

Innovation strategy is far more than just holding a meeting and brainstorming. The best innovation strategy encourages new kinds of thinking, new approaches to challenges, and surprising takes on unusual situations. And one of the best tools to find this is lateral thinking.

What Is Lateral Thinking?

Most of us use “vertical” thinking when we approach problems. Vertical thinking is a step by step approach built on an assumption of results. That is, if you take an action, your next step is built on the idea the previous one will unfold exactly as you expect. The problem, as we all know, is that vertical thinking doesn’t deal well with unknown consequences or unexpected responses. Or, perhaps, the next step isn’t totally clear; you know your goal but not how to reach it, or all your steps are unsatisfactory in some way.

That’s where lateral thinking comes in. For example, if you walk into a room, you see a broken vase and your cat sitting where the vase was, licking his paw, you might assume that the cat knocked over the vase. It’s a logical conclusion, after all. But think about your assumptions in this chain of events. Do they hold up? Are they facts?

Lateral thinking is a form of sidestep in logic, looking at each part of both the problem and a potential solution from different angles. So how do you apply it to innovation?

Applying Lateral Thinking

A different perspective can yield brilliant results.

The best place to start with lateral thinking is to challenge your assumptions. In fact, your car runs thanks to lateral thinking. When gasoline was first distilled, it was a waste product that resulted from making kerosene, little more than an annoyance for chemical manufacturers. But as experiments with building combustion engines unfolded, and the seemingly logical method of burning coal gas or other hydrocarbons turned out to be too volatile, chemists remembered this other hydrocarbon they had lying around that might work. With a little refinement, what was once chemical garbage now drives the world’s economy.

So, when innovating, list out the assumptions you’ve been using to this point. This could range for the assumed market for your product to how it’s put together to how it gets to market. Then go through and challenge each of these. Just how true is this assumption? How much of this is fact?

Another approach is to question each step and look at everything that step does, not just the results you’re looking for. One example of this comes from Pfizer, and their most well-known product, Viagra. Viagra was synthesized to be a blood pressure medication, but when the results came back, it turned out to have a completely unexpected effect.

Finally, look at the order of your steps. What happens if you take them out of order? What changes? What happens if you do them in reverse?

Lateral thinking can be a challenge, at first, but it’s a powerful tool for innovation strategy. To build on not just lateral thinking, but all the tools of innovation, get the Innovation Starter Kit.

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