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Do you ever wonder why cars aren’t called “horseless carriages” anymore? Today’s cars are just as horseless as they were a century ago. Horselessness is standard equipment on most new and late models, both foreign and domestic.

Framing the question this way may seem a bit absurd; yet, it’s a playful reminder that innovation does not emerge out of nothing. New innovations evolve from historical, iterative processes. The automobile developed out of, and in opposition to, concepts associated with the horse and carriage. This was the familiar frame of reference when the automobile first emerged. Early automobiles extended and adapted the accustomed 19th century understanding of locomotion.

A creative, innovative mind also seeks to move beyond the given categories of thought established by binary either/or frameworks (such as the Hegelian model just described). This is still a move towards synthesis, but it includes opposing concepts that are internal to that binary framework and to ideas outside of it. If you’re a visual thinker, you can think of the internal concepts as a “vertical” axis and the external concepts as a “horizontal” axis.

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Lateral thinking, the ability to move horizontally across different categories of thought.

6a00e008d957708834019affc61a30970b-300x187The creative process is just that: a process. Recognizing value that others have missed doesn’t require preternatural clairvoyance. A well-honed creative process enables us to intuitively recognize patterns and use those insights to make inductive predictions about divergent ideas, both vertically within categories, and horizontally across categories. By understanding the genealogy of innovation within a given category, we can imagine what might come next.

We need to break out of thinking that is solely based on what we know, what we assume, and what we’ve experienced. Many of us are so entrenched in our industries that we don’t know how to think laterally or horizontally. We usually go a mile deep but only an inch wide. We haven’t given our people and ourselves the time and opportunities to explore other industries, cultures designs, ways of being and doing, and other “adjacent possibilities.”

If you want to take your “car” far beyond horses, even to the moon perhaps, you and your team need to understand the genealogy of innovation, of how you got to where you are, and look outside of that familiar world to see where you can go.

One thought on “What–exactly–is lateral thinking?

  1. Not every problem/invention can be solved by the Dialectic Method, although the horsepower of car engines hints at some relationship to the friendly animal. Cat Napolo who, too, is a friendly animal, can go at great length exploring possibilities to get aroud a barrier I have built for him to jump over. Often, he concludes that the simpest thing is just to go and jump. A skilfull problem-solver also depends on a variety, often incompatible, methods for solving various problems.

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