Lateral Thinking - a powerful approach to creative problem solving

Lateral Thinking - a powerful approach to creative problem solving

I often describe myself (and please don’t laugh) as a creative soul trapped in a corporate role.

My passion is in writing, film, radio, photography and art but my living comes from management and HR consulting. That hasn’t stopped me bringing creativity into the workplace, in fact, I think the creative approach to work has helped me greatly in my career.

Where people see problems, I see a chance to be creative – and that’s what we’ll talk about in this edition: creative problem solving using the PO method, introduced by Edward DeBono.

At the start of last year I did a 30 day’s of creativity in the workplace writing challenge. It’s now condensed into this PDF which you can download for free if you’re interested.

Creativity has (or should have) a prominent place in our work places. I’d go so far as to say it’s the very fabric that keeps a business alive. Asking meaningful questions, turning problems on their head, looking for innovative new paths and being curious about why things are as they are, are all part of the creative process.

As I point out in the 30 day guide though, creativity is not about coming up with ideas, its about creating something. If all we do is come up with great ideas we might want to label that imagination. The real creative part (and the hardest part) is then creating what you see in your mind.

Problem Solving

A company always has more problems than it can solve, so the trick is solving only those problems that are on your path towards your painted picture. We’ll cover creating a painted picture in next week’s masterclass.

This painted picture can also exist in your own personal life (I have one), and the same approach of solving only the problems on your path is true for our own lives.

But how do we solve problems? There are many ways.

And sometimes, the problems seem so tricky to solve that we need to apply some lateral thinking.

Lateral Thinking

At work we often find that people are so close to the work itself that they cannot step back from it to see a wider context. Some people are narrow in their thinking, or don’t have a wide experience to call upon, or have a limited toolbox to solve problems.

This can result in ideas and solutions that are not fit for purpose, only solve the symptoms, or may in some cases, create the problems of tomorrow.

Lateral thinking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I’ve personally developed this skill through reading books that have nothing to do with my main work, building a robust Personal Knowledge Management System and developing the art of noticing through photography.

Many of you do these same things, so you can adopt Lateral Thinking by bringing in ideas from other areas and aspects of your knowledge to solve problems. But not everyone has the ability to think laterally.


Using the idea of PO (which I’ll explain in a minute) can encourage people to start thinking laterally. It can open their minds and encourage creative solutions to come forth.

As I said, some people will have no problem with this exercise because it seems natural. Some people may need some support. Some people will say it’s stupid or weird or a waste of time.

PO, as defined by DeBono, is about taking a well defined problem and combining it with an object. Then looking at the traits of that object to see how these may relate to the problem, and then, hopefully, leading to some solutions.

Lateral thinking forces people out of a narrow mode of thinking and helps them to think more broadly – hence lateral thinking.

PO = Problem + Object

For example, let’s say you have a problem with staff retention.

Good people are leaving, you have some anecdotal information about why and you have a couple of exit interviews (not that they are often very helpful). The data suggests it’s a chaotic place, with few benefits, poor management and limited career prospects.

Let’s say you combine this problem statement with an object. Let’s just pick a “table” as the object for this example.

What traits does a table have? This is a good starting point.

  • It typically has legs which give it strong foundations.
  • It is stable under pressure.
  • It supports other objects.
  • It is often used for communal events.
  • It can be used to be productive (desk).
  • People can sit around it.
  • They come in various shapes and sizes.

From this list of traits you may find some suitable creative ideas to address the problem. Let’s go through the traits in order and see what comes to mind

  • Maybe people need some strong foundations within the business: succession planning; consistent management; well-balanced remuneration package; clear roles and responsibilities. As silly as this sounds, many companies simply don’t have strong basic foundations.
  • Maybe people need clarity and stability of vision through a painted picture and goals. Maybe they need leaders to stop creating new initiatives every year, or provide some stability in direction.
  • Maybe you need to create some communities of practice or a better HR support model to aid in building support networks. Or to train your managers on how to look after people properly.
  • Or maybe some social clubs and activities to grow a sense of community.
  • Maybe you need more recognition for good work done, or to shine a light on great improvements through a company newsletter or show ‘n’ tell.
  • Maybe you need more flexibility or better workspaces, or more regular opportunities for people to network.
  • Maybe you need to drop some standards or policies that don’t help – after all, our workplaces SHOULD be diverse and varied. Maybe the diversity of skills is not being catered for well.

You get the idea.

I run these sorts of activities often, and it’s a staple module in my Zero To Keynote workshop.

When people tell me they have nothing to present at a conference, I ask them to write down their main skill on an index card. I then ask them to pick a picture card from my tin of 200+ image cards and start thinking about what they see in the image. What could they combine? What traits may help? How could they explain their skills using the image? If they still don’t get their lateral thinking head on, I provide another image.

It works.

The ideas that come out may not be sound. They may be weird. There may be many of them. There could be plenty of laughter at what comes out. But there is a creative solution in there somewhere. You then have the hard work ahead of you: creating what you imagined and making it a reality.

Using the combination of a “problem” and a “object” (or device) really can help people to step out of a mode of thinking that is limiting their ideas, and into a world of wonder.

This technique can side step the barriers to creative (or imaginative) thinking. Not everyone will resonate with an activity like this, some people don’t value creative thinking and some people will struggle with this, but the outcomes typically convince them of its validity.

Some ideas for objects:

  • Curtains – they open and close, slide, come in different sizes and shapes, can be automated, can be used for privacy, have different textures, may be colourful.
  • Camera – different prices, quality and features. Capture moments. Can have dual use (video and stills). Are everywhere in our phones. Can tell a story. Digital and analogue.
  • Park Bench – used for communal activity, or for a rest, or for solitude, or for anti-social activity. Memories are formed sitting on them. People use them to remember other people (commemorative plaques on them – at least in the UK). Different shapes and sizes. Haven’t changed much since they were first invented.

Literally looking around and spotting objects can give you a great list to use. Or buy some picture cards. I use and recommend these. (aff link).

Let me know how you get on if you use this approach.