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Lateral Thinking

Thinking Outside the Box

The following examples of thinking outside of the box are meant to stimulate your creativity. Some of them are true stories of creative problem solving, and others are just ideas generated using lateral thinking techniques. I include a few notes on the basic approach used to produce each idea, so you can get our own thinking out of the box.

Where to Put Sidewalks

Years ago I read a story about an apartment complex that was built without cement walks leading to the various doors. "In the box" thinking says that you always install sidewalks where you think they are needed. But the developer of this particular complex noticed that everywhere there were multiple buildings with multiple entrances, there were also paths worn in the grass. People took whichever path seemed the shortest or most convenient, and traffic flows are difficult to predict prior to people actually using buildings. He realized that putting sidewalks where one thinks they are needed doesn't work that well.

The solution? He waited until people lived in the apartments for a couple months and watched for the wear patterns in the lawn. Where the people actually walked he installed sidewalks. As you might imagine, they followed many of the shortest routes between buildings and between parking areas and doors, but not necessarily the routes that a builder might have guessed. It's a great example of thinking outside the box.

To encourage this kind of creative and non-conformist thinking, stop once in a while and notice problems with the way things work. Identify what ideas you have about what is "supposed to be" or what people are "supposed to do," and drop them. Look carefully for what is actually there or what is actually happening, and look to that for inspiration.

Creative Shaming

How do you change the economic policies of a country? You might use the political process, by convincing enough people to vote for the candidates with better policies. But that's too "in the box" for our purposes. What's a more creative solution? In The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford, there is the true story of how the World Bank shamed the Ethiopian government into changing a law.

Entrepreneurs in the country couldn't start a business without publishing an official notice in government newspapers. Unfortunately this cost about four years' average salary - a very discouraging regulation. The World Bank openly criticized the government for this, and resulting bad press encouraged the government to change the law. New business registrations immediately went up by 50%.

The more basic idea here is to set aside the normal solutions and look at other forces that can be used instead. In addition to shaming a government, it might have been possible to encourage change by demonstrating how it would result in more revenue, or by withholding help, or by naming the law for the politician who would have the most influence in making the change. Greed, fear, desire for fame and other forces are all there to be used.

The Unmoved Apple

When young I always played around with basic concepts of physics and science. One day a friend and I were in the back of a pick-up truck that was moving along at about 30 miles-per-hour. We had a bag of old apples that he started to throw at the trees as we drove by them. Watching the arc of the apples I realized that if I could throw an apple directly opposite the direction we were going, and at the same velocity relative to me as the truck was moving relative to its surroundings, the apple would fall straight to the ground.

After a few tries we made it work. If you were to stand on the side of the road you would see my friend or I throwing it with some force, yet the moment we released the apple it would go neither forward nor backward. It would simply drop straight down to the ground (we knew we had it right when they didn't roll anywhere).

Now how do you use this kind of playing around to get your thinking outside the box on real life problems? Look for applications for the lessons learned. Considering it now I remember many times seeing a highway repair truck moving along slowly for a mile or more while an employee sets traffic cones down. If there was a device to slide them out at the same speed the truck was moving they would drop nicely onto the pavement at a much faster rate, saving many hours of labor on some projects. Look for applications.

My Lateral Thinking Puzzle

I had the following lateral thinking challenge in the Brainpower Newsletter a while back: A piece of chalk the size and shape of a pea is large enough to make a line just a few meters long. How, then, can you use it to create a circle fifty meters across?

I think the solution that I offered was to throw it in the middle of a pond of still water, because the ripple created would expand out to a perfect circle of fifty meters. But subscribers emailed me several other good solutions, all possible because they didn't limit themselves to the usual makings of "the box," such as the assumption of a continuous line, or using the chalk itself for a line. Mark a circle in the sand using the chalk, suggested one. Another had the idea to make a dotted line for the circle, perhaps drawing an inch of the line every couple feet.

Identify those assumptions that other are making and that you are making (a car has to have wheels, a war has to be fought with guns, a restaurant has to have seats). That's what the box is made of. Challenging those is how you get your thinking outside the box.

My Kite Propulsion Boat

I had a small sail boat when I was younger, and I also used to play with kites. Regular sail boats are complicated, with masts, booms, and keels, but a simple kite can propel a canoe or other boat. I tried it with a rowboat once, so I know that it works. A para-sail would be light to carry and simple to use. (I imagine that, like many of my ideas, this has been done many times before, so feel free to email me if you've seen "kite sails" for sale for boaters.)

Combining different ideas in this way - starting with our own experiences - is a great way to get out of the box with your invention and business ideas.

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