The concept of lateral thinking was introduced in the 1960s by the Maltese physician and creativity educator Edward de Bono, who has written more than 50 books on thinking and creativity. The concept of lateral thinking is based on finding as many answers as possible (divergent thinking). This is done by considering as many different choices as possible, some of which may be incorrect. The thinking is provocative and the solutions should be completely unexpected.
The lateral thinking uses different forms of stimuli to attract as many associations as possible. This can be done by e.g. random words or imaginative and completely unrelated pictures and photos.
But the lateral thinking can also come as an unexpected thought jump in an ordinary discussion, as illustrated in the examples below.
Shortly after the Korean War in the late 1950s, a large telephone company in the American Midwest developed a new internal training program for supervisors for operators. They invested heavily in recruiting the best people they could get hold of and the training was ambitious and very well organised. It all went very well. They got very good supervisors and the project was covered in the media.
The problem was only that many other companies got their eyes on the talented supervisors and offered the newly graduated supervisors good jobs in their companies as soon as they had finished the training. The newly trained supervisors began to disappear at a rapid pace. A few at a time to a variety of other companies and organisations. Attempts to meet the competition with higher salaries and better terms of employment did not help. The telephone company needed so many supervisors and many of the companies that attracted the newly educated picked just a few and could therefore offer better conditions.
At the telephone company, they became more and more frustrated until someone in the management team said. Let’s cut off their legs so they can’t go away. The joke was met by laughter by most people except by a colleague who said, “Yes, brilliant. This is what we should do”. There was some confusion until he explained his idea – the company should invest in training handicapped persons in wheelchairs. At the time, there were many war veterans in wheelchair who had a hard time getting a job.
The idea received a strong support. The company invested in wheelchair ramps, rebuilt and adapted the workplace in a way that otherwise did not exist at that time and the company offered training and jobs to a group that otherwise would have difficulty entering the labour market. None of the competitors considered themselves able to make the same investments solely to attract a few new employees. The telephone company could keep its newly trained supervisors, and at the same time they created work opportunities to a group of young and highly motivated persons who wanted nothing more than to get out and get an employment.