In a nutshell: To become the next Steve Jobs, take an unconventional approach to solving challenges. What are the possibilities other people are overlooking?

Many people see business – even life itself – as a kind of game where everyone gets certain cards and they must figure out how to best play them to achieve success.

A lateral thinker wouldn’t worry about the cards they are dealt. They’d want a whole new deck. Or to completely change the rules of the game.

Lateral thinking, according to business consultant Edward de Bono, involves seeing past preconceived notions and approaching challenges from completely different angles.

This breaks a person free from “certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries,” de Bono wrote. He also encouraged lateral thinking by pointing out that it’s better to have ideas and sometimes be wrong than to “be always right by having no ideas at all.”

Perhaps no business leader in recent American history personifies this thinking as well as the late Steve Jobs. He famously said, “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy,” according to a book by former Apple CEO John Sculley.

He eliminated the issue of where to put an on/off button on some Apple devices by simply not having one. That succinctly sums up a lateral approach to solving issues.

The Impact of Lateral Thinking

As pointed out by de Bono, approaching challenges from new directions fosters creativity. That, in turn, can lead to better problem-solving skills.

That supports innovation within a company. In an interview with Idea Connection, author and business consultant Paul Sloane said he often uses the phrase “innovative leader” rather than “lateral leadership” when talking about lateral thinking in business. That partly because it’s an easier concept to grasp, and also because innovation is where lateral thinking leads.

Sloane contrasts such leadership with a “conventional command and control, directive leader who tells you what to do.” Those who use lateral thinking ask questions, challenge employees and listen to the ideas of others. A lateral thinker empowers those around him or her with the freedom to think in different ways about solving challenges.

Lateral Thinking in Practice

A good place to start learning about lateral thinking is to simply read “Steve Jobs,” the Walter Isaacson biography that came out shortly after Jobs’ death in 2011.

Entrepreneurial history features people who thought “outside the envelope.” For example, lateral thinking was involved in two major inventions in the past century.

  • When German engineer Carl Benz developed the first car, horse and buggy was the prevalent mode of transportation. Few thought about vehicles driven by gasoline-powered engines. But after years of work, his ideas came to life with the three-wheeled Benz Patent Motor Car, which was patented in 1886. It also led to the creation of the world’s first modern automobile – the Mercedes-Benz – and the founding of the car company that still exists today. Thanks to another lateral thinker – Henry Ford – mass production of cars led to the demise of horse-drawn transportation in the early 20th century.
  • As pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article, it’s amazing to consider that it was just 60 years between the first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and the Apollo mission to the moon. As the article noted, “This is just one example of how lateral thinking and quick iteration can produce astonishing results in a relatively short amount of time.”

Bolster Lateral Thinking

Thankfully, lateral thinking is a skill that can be learned. Most people are not born lateral thinkers.

Thinking through puzzles can help strengthen lateral thinking. Consider this one from 99u:

Pretend you are trapped in a room with only two exits. Out one exit is a room that is a giant magnifying glass where the sun’s rays will burn you. Outside the other exit is a room with a fire-breathing dragon – who also will burn you. Which door do you take?

Now put lateral thinking into action:

  • What are the assumptions? In this case, you are trapped in a room where exiting out either door is going to kill you.
  • What’s the conventional solution? Think about the straightforward solutions. Then ask yourself what you would do if you couldn’t use those solutions.
  • Think backward: Solutions often appear by working a challenge backward. In this example, you might ask how you could get into a room when one door is adjoined by a giant magnifying glass and the other is guarded by a dragon.
  • Change perspective: Think about how you would solve this issue if you were someone else with different skill sets – in other words, someone without your preconceived notions.

By now, you’ve likely arrived at the solution. Wait until the sun goes down and exit through the magnifying glass room. Here are some other puzzles that also will force you into lateral thinking.

Solving tough challenges doesn’t mean just working harder. While hard work is important, creating thinking is even more so. Work smarter, not harder. Lateral thinking can help support that approach for both you and your team.

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