In times of crisis, much gets written about the importance of leaders not “losing their heads.” But, while remaining calm is a pre-requisite of almost all good decision-making, it is only a means to an end.
Lateral thinking – a term first coined by Edward de Bono in 1967 – refers to a person’s capacity to address problems by imagining solutions that cannot be arrived at via deductive or logical means. Or, to put it in simpler terms: the ability to develop original answers to difficult questions. This is the essence of creativity, and all organisations benefit from it at times of change – when, by definition, traditional solutions are unlikely to get the desired result.
To regard lateral thinking as the preserve of certain parts of a business – marketing, for example – is tempting. Tempting – and wrong. Take finance. “Very rarely have I seen fresh approaches to fundraising being considered as part of business continuity planning,” says Adam Tilson of Alternative Finance, a specialist in helping organisations raise capital. “But the process is not difficult or necessarily expensive, and there are many opportunities to think outside the box and solve problems.” The key, Tilson suggests, is to not let received wisdom stand in the way – and to find sources of support who are also prepared to innovate. In doing so, leaders “are often able to access radically different solutions and much more flexibility than they might at first believe,” he says.
People management is another area where lateral thinking can bear huge dividends, despite the reputation of HR as highly process-oriented. “The questions that we should be asking in HR are those such as: how do we build talent pools for the future?” says David Reay, senior VP of HR at Sony Music Worldwide. “And how do we help people learn quickly and well, by harnessing the power of digital?” He believes that the answers to such questions require not just logical but creative thought. “And they remain the key questions for HR, regardless of might be happening in the outside world.”
The critical point is this: it does not matter a jot what you do or where you work. Everyone has it in them to add transformational value through lateral thinking – even, or especially, in times of change or crisis.
And it’s an increasingly in-demand skill. Ashleigh Otter, chief of staff at online library Perlego, agrees. “The ability to problem solve and think critically is one of the main attributes we look for when hiring,” she says. “In a world that is constantly changing, we need to be able to adapt and look beyond what is our default.”
So, how do you think laterally when the world around you is in a blind panic? Here are four techniques that will help, whatever organization or situation you find yourself in.
Pick a transitional object
“What would Bruce Lee do?” might not be the most conventional start to a conversation about strategy, but it might help you shake up your thinking.
A transitional object is someone or something embodying certain characteristics or qualities that you can use as inspiration for new ideas. (Whether or not the person or thing concerned actually does embody those qualities in real life is irrelevant. Perception is reality.)
Transitional objects can be people or things that you like or admire – or the opposite. The point here is that they embody a set of qualities that do not exist in your organisation (or life) today. To continue with the above example, Bruce Lee taught the importance of working with – rather than against – the energy of your attacker. How might this inform your strategy?
Jump to the wrong answer
Asking “what’s the one thing we absolutely should not do in this situation?” is an irreverent question that can challenge conventional thinking about what is an advisable course of action.
Faced with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the Swedish clothing manufacturer Asket did precisely the wrong thing on paper: it suspended all sales on those days and instead sold only clothing protection products. But in doing so, it strongly reinforced its brand message about sustainable consumption and the importance of buying well – and earned additional respect from its environmentally-conscious customer base.
Bear in mind that, when innovating, it can be way easier to go way out and wind back than to try solving problems by iterating from a conservative start point. Even if the answer to this counterintuitive question is, in reality, completely the wrong thing to do, it can pave the way to new thinking about what’s right.
Don’t add – subtract
Most strategies and tactics are additive – they often involve doing more things in ever-shorter timescales, diluting impact and burning people out.
Asking “what would happen if we stopped doing—or asked others to stop doing—the following?” can stimulate new thinking about your customer experience, employee experience or even overall strategy. Doing so will also challenge your organisation’s received wisdom about resource deployment, which can be beneficial when trading is tough.
Bear in mind that Twitter – a business that can stake a reasonable claim to having changed the world – was invented not by adding but subtracting. In that case, the element that was taken away was the permission to use more than 140 characters when blogging.
Tell a different story
According to the author Christopher Booker, all narratives orient around a very small number of basic, archetypal plots that human beings are pre-programmed to understand:
- Voyage and return
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
This is not just a matter for fiction writers. Consider which plot currently underpins your business or project. Now pick another one – and rewrite the future. For example, are you a running a plucky scale-up that is “overcoming the monster” in your category? What would happen if, instead, you attempted to “rebirth” your marketplace or customer offering? Might that change, for example, your appetite for finance?
In times of crisis, the plot that many leaders unconsciously follow is “tragedy”. Try reframing your struggles as “voyage and return,” say – and you might be surprised at both the emotional and strategic shifts that this particular exercise in lateral thinking helps you to achieve.
Originally published on Forbes.com