Work Traits

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking means you can see possibilities that others can't, and you're motivated to find the alternative path around each challenge.
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What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking means the ability to create multiple ways of approaching problems and dealing with different business situations. 

You’re motivated by alternative methods of operation, and care less about 'doing things the right way’ or having to follow certain procedures to get by. You’re focused on adapting to changing circumstances, and having a multitude of options available to take you where you want to go. 

Without a great desire for instructions, you’ll likely have a high degree of self-efficacy, improvising on the fly until you’re able to complete a task. Creativity comes naturally to you, and flexibility is one of your key attributes.

We call it: Alternatives

Your level of desire to find alternate ways, create options and invent possibilities in business.

Sooner or later, there’s always a Jaws: a mental hurdle we can’t clear, a decision too dangerous to attack head on. In those situations, sideways is forward.

Steven Kotler

Leaders known for lateral thinking

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal, PhD is a writer, game designer, speaker and researcher. Her specialism is in designing games that improve lives and solve real problems, and she’s been praised by top institutions such as MIT, the World Economic Forum, Harvard Business Review. She also delivered one of the most popular TED talks of all time, ’The game that can give you 10 extra years of life’. 

In a highly personal example of lateral thinking, Jane was bedridden and deeply depressed following a severe concussion, and created a game called SuperBetter to help herself cope by gamifying tasks throughout her day. She went on to raise $1m in funding for its development and release to the wider world. Since then, Mcgonigal has continued her work designing ‘alternate reality games’ as Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research group.

Hideo Kojima

Hideo Kojima is an award-winning Japanese video game designer. He’s regarded as an industry legend and 'auteur' of the form, bringing a filmic, adventurous perspective to his iconic games, such as Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill. 

Kojima blends the directorial art of movie-making with the technical demands of game design to invent completely new interactive experiences. His latest work, Death Stranding, pits the player as a package courier in a post-apocalyptic United States attempting to rebuild society. 

Paving alternative paths in a medium often reduced to sports, guns and Mario, Kojima vows never to take the easy route of convention: "As a creator, I always want to betray fans' expectations.”

Hideo Kojima
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Padmasree Warrior

Padmasree Warrior is an American-Indian technology executive. She held leadership positions in companies including Cisco, Motorola, NIO and Fable, and has featured in Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women in the World and America’s Top 50 Women in Tech lists. 

A true leader in innovation, she holds places on the boards of multiple forward-thinking technology companies including Spotify and Microsoft, and is passionate about mentoring other women in tech. 

Padmasree is a believer in the power of lateral thinking in the world of science and technology: "Increasingly it's not about knowing all the answers but asking the right questions and figuring out how to get the right answer.”

The benefits of lateral thinking

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You can see things that others can’t, which makes you an indispensable part of a team.

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You’re likely to be high in creativity, leading to an innovative and groundbreaking work style.

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Problem solver

With your ability to reframe challenges in different lights, you’re highly skilled at seeing solutions hidden to others.

The blind spots of lateral thinking

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With your skill of identifying multiple options comes an inability to choose a definite path. This could leave you in a state of indecision at times.

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Rebellion is admirable and romantic, until it’s not: breaking convention can be disruptive and can antagonize more conventional thinkers.

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Lateral thinking can breed adventurousness and daring, but occasionally steps over into recklessness if taken too far. Just be mindful!

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How to be a lateral thinker

1) Speak like a lateral thinker.

When faced with a situation that needs resolving, you might naturally default to following what people have done before, or looking for a set of guidelines on how to operate. 

Instead, point your mindset towards the lateral thinking method by remembering to use words like ‘options’, ’shortcuts’ or ‘alternatives’ - these will orient your perspective towards opening up multiple opportunities. 

The interesting thing about thinking creatively in this way is that once you see one alternative possibility, you’ll suddenly be able to see many.

2) Branch out your decisions.

For every decision you make, try to list two alternatives - even if they’re unnecessary. They could even be wildly fictional or totally useless. 

The point is to get into the practice of bringing multiple options to the table. 

You can do this privately, with decisions made in your personal life ('what shall I have for dinner tonight?') or share your discoveries with others (‘here’s the plan, and if it doesn’t work out, here’s a couple of alternatives’). 

This practice, like any other, soon becomes second nature, and eventually you’ll become an ‘idea machine’. One major advantage of this method is that you’ll always have a backup plan when the time comes.

3) Avoid structured thinking.

Defaulting to standard procedures is usually the easier way to go. If you’re doing something that’s been done before, especially when it’s by someone more experienced or senior than you, it’s pretty tempting to just follow a template. 

Instead of this, remind yourself that continuous improvement is a virtue, so exploring alternative paths will help your organization as well as yourself. 

Try not to feel like a rebel or rulebreaker when doing this - you’re simply participating in the process of innovation, and might uncover some really unique ways of doing things that others will appreciate. 

Don’t clip your wings - try to let those ideas fly.

4) Don’t always assume there’s a ‘right way’.

Just because others have paved the way before you, doesn’t mean they were one hundred percent correct. It might just mean they were first. 

Sure, there isn't always a need for different options. Safety procedures, for example, are there for a reason, and shouldn’t be tampered with. The same goes for legal regulations. But when the stakes aren’t so high - such as in workplace communications or product development - it might be your chance to set the new precedent. 

There’s a right way to do things, but there’s also a better way. Which one will you choose?

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