Executive Lateral Thinking

We know that executives are required to have a broad base of business knowledge. From financial matters to sales and marketing to operations. Additionally, their ability to demonstrate soft skills such as communication, flexibility, conflict resolution, problem solving, and positive attitude among others is paramount to success. A term that has increasingly come to be associated with successful executives is lateral thinking.  

The term itself is not new. It was coined in 1967 by Edward de Bono. The concept is similar to the improvisational comedy idea of “yes, and” in that it is not critical thinking, where we look for holes in someone’s idea. Rather, it takes a known concept as a starting point to explore new and different ideas, moving sideways instead of vertically (top down).

Per de Bono, “Creative thinking empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities, which improves creativity and innovation, which leads to increased productivity and profit. Today, better quality and better service are essential, but they are not enough. Creativity and innovation are the only engines that will drive lasting, global success.”

His insight into the need for innovative thinking holds more true in today’s technology driven business landscape than it did fifty years ago.

His website defines lateral thinking as, “the process of using information to bring about creativity and insight restructuring. Lateral thinking can be learned, practised and used. It is possible to acquire skill in it just as it is possible to acquire skill in mathematics.”

You may be thinking this sounds a lot like the hackneyed, ‘think outside the box’, and you would be right. Thinking outside the box is one way to refer to lateral thinking. Granted it became an overused buzzword that lost meaning, but the idea behind it remains relevant.

Breaking out of logical or linear thinking is difficult. It’s how we have been trained to think our entire lives. And there are times where it is beneficial. But creative thinking is just as necessary. And as you move up in your career, you’ll more often find yourself in circumstances where you won’t have all of the information but will be expected to make a decision.

A traditional linear thinking approach may not help. Lateral thinking on the other hand opens up your possibilities and different avenues to the solution. Silicon Valley’s phrase ‘fail fast’ is born of the idea that it’s better to act without all of the information and see what happens. It’s an iterative approach to understand what the market embraces. Optimize what works and eliminate what doesn’t. This is in contrast to the deliberate process of the last century, where everything had to be just right before it could be presented to the public.

The use of lateral thinking has become more prevalent in business partly because it aligns with today’s pace of innovation. Waiting can be a death knell. The number of innovative products and technologies we use today were not developed by linear, step by step thinking. A great example are smart phones. The innovation didn’t come from incumbent companies, they were too busy thinking about step improvements to their existing products. Instead it came from two of the most innovative companies of our time, Apple and Google, neither of which was previously involved with telecommunications hardware.

If you’re interested in learning how lateral thinking contributes to a successful executive team, send us a note. Our partnership with Hogan Assessments can help you identify strong candidates and leaders as well as develop the thinking skills of your current team.