On Lateral Thinking

I apply a similar problem solving approach almost everywhere in life, but sometimes that approach fails when I am working on a big challenge or a very hard problem.

I noticed that when I need a new set of tools, I default almost subconsciously to a form of lateral thinking as described by Edward DeBono in 1967.

Uh… Why would I know anything about that in the first place?

In the mid 90’s, my dad, a mechanical engineer, got laid off after working at the same company for 27 years. It seemed very unexpected, and in his true entrepreneurial way, picked himself up, found a partner in crime in a former colleague. They spent months preparing, and eventually began delivering corporate training workshops based on the Six Thinking Hats in the interim while my dad looked for something with benefits.

I’m fairly sure that my dad used lateral thinking himself, because he chose me as his prime experiment subject when testing his curriculum. I was a young teenager then, and I soaked everything in like a sponge.

I encourage everyone to at least read about lateral thinking. While I rarely use the Six Thinking Hats in practice anymore, the critical skill that came from learning about them is that diversity of perspective helps you make better decisions. Knowing what the hats are for and what they represent does come in helpful when brainstorming (or thought showering).

When you’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle, lateral thinking helps you summon the lightning. It’s about the brilliant idea that started off as something others think sounded ridiculous. With lateral thinking, sometimes you really do find a great answer by coming at the problem sideways.

Lateral thinking helps you perform better in some ways. You can:

  • view failures as both disappointing and inspiring
  • arrive at surprisingly creative solutions
  • solve problems faster by considering multiple outcomes for each step
  • see the bright side of every “no” you hear

(it also slices and dices, by the way…)

Naturally, this lends itself well to the software engineer’s mindset and how your work affects the system at large. I remember on the job description for my first role at Microsoft as a technical evangelist, “a keen eye for less obvious opportunities” was a listed skill.

Agile puts perspective at the forefront, with its user stories formulated as “As a <person with a certain perspective> I want to do X so I can Y.”

About half of my work is troubleshooting technical problems with many different types and skill levels of customer engineers, and the ability to actively look for perspectives and inconspicuous solutions is something anyone can agree is a great asset.

Book: Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono



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