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Unsolved Mysteries: Problem-Solving with Lateral Thinking


Four Lateral Thinking Techniques to Help You Get “Outside the Box”

Have you ever encountered an unsolvable problem? One where, no matter how much you pound on it, the solution never presents itself?

This reminds me of an old TV show, Unsolved Mysteries (recently rebooted by Netflix). Over some dramatic theme music, we would see re-enactments of mysterious events, such as people disappearing, cars being shot, and other sensational incidents, followed by the host asking viewers to help solve this seemingly unsolvable mystery.

Sometimes you can turn to others for help in solving a mystery, but often you have to figure it out yourself. When you don’t have Robert Stack (one of the hosts of Unsolved Mysteries) to call on, try changing your approach and use lateral thinking.

What Is Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking foregoes the usual step-by-step approach to problem-solving and instead uses indirect and creative approaches to come up with solutions that aren’t immediately obvious. In essence, it encourages you to think creatively, write down any ideas you come up with no matter how outlandish, and access different parts of your brain to help you solve a problem. It’s a different take on “out-of-the-box” thinking.

I ran into an unsolvable problem recently while working on a database conversion project. No matter what I did, the new database refused to connect to the system. I used all the tried-and-true methods to solve the issue — checked my steps, reached out to co-workers — but the problem remained unsolved. I finally turned to lateral thinking to come up with new solutions.

I took out a piece of paper and drew a picture of the database and the system, and left space between them. In the space, I brainstormed a variety of ways — some of them pretty out there — to get the database and the system to talk to each other. The emphasis was on coming up with ideas and not worrying about issues with implementing them. From there, I circled the ones I wanted to try. This led to more thinking, and eventually I solved the problem. The solution seems obvious now, but at the time, it was a deep mystery to me.

Lateral Thinking Techniques

Edward de Bono, who originated the concept of lateral thinking, lists four techniques1 for helping develop this ability:

  1. Awareness. Being aware of how you process information is the first step to improving your lateral thinking.
  2. Random stimulation. Rather than shut out outside influences, allow intrusions to help encourage your creativity.
  3. Alternatives. Even if there’s a perfectly obvious solution, sometimes it helps to put it aside and come up with alternative approaches.
  4. Alteration. Break down relationships between elements, deny things you take for granted, and really challenge the elements of a problem. This can help to produce new solutions to the problem.

The next time you encounter an unsolvable mystery, try lateral thinking. Ask yourself, how will you apply this technique to help you solve a problem? How can you use the four techniques to literally think outside the box?

1 Information Processing and New Ideas — Lateral and Vertical Thinking. Edward de Bono, 1969

Further Reading:

A woman and some of her coworkers smiling while working in a computer lab.

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