Great Innovators Think Laterally

by Ian Gonsher and Deb Mills-Scofield | 10:00 AM April 23, 2013

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.

However, long after the automobile had made the horse and carriage obsolete and the association had faded, the concepts of each still defined one another; this synthesis is still present today. Traces of the horse and carriage are found in terms like “horsepower” and in the names of classic cars like the Mustang, Colt, and Bronco. Consider the form of a car’s design. You can see how four legs evolved into four wheels and headlights into the eyes of our metal beasts of burden. The vestiges of formative features still affect how we make sense of the built environment and our material culture, even if the original antecedent has long been forgotten.

Often, when searching for a new way to understand a familiar idea, we look for its opposite. By doing this, we create a spectrum of possibilities between what it is and what it is not. This strategy is somewhat similar to what is often referred to as the Hegelian Dialectic, although Hegel himself probably never used this term, or its familiar formula: Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis:

  • Thesis is a proposition about a prevalent paradigm; e.g. a horse and carriage;
  • Antithesis is a counter proposition that opposes or negates the Thesis; e.g. the first generation of automobiles called “horseless carriages”;
  • Synthesis emerges from the tension between the Thesis and the Antithesis, blending the opposing ideas without fully negating either of them completely; e.g. our modern understanding of the car.

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. Lateral thinking, the ability to move horizontally across different categories of thought, often manifests itself as a synthesis between seemingly incongruent ideas; think of Roger Martin’s classic, Opposable Minds.

Let’s extend the horselessness example to imagine how horizontal moves across categories can play out. Beyond the familiar four-wheeled vehicle, which may have evolved in response to animal anatomy, we can imagine other categories of vehicles. We might imagine a vehicle with three wheels or five wheels or no wheels at all. But why stop there? We can imagine even more divergent, lateral moves across other categories as we consider vehicles that fly or hover. Once upon a time legs became wheels, which eventually took on a variety of divergent configurations, so why can’t wheels become something else entirely?

Consider the astonishing fact that within about 60 years we went from Kitty Hawk to Apollo 11, from flying just a few feet above the earth’s surface to traveling the 234,000 miles to the moon. Flying vehicles went from wings to wingless, from within the earth’s atmosphere to outside of it in a single lifetime. This is just one example of how lateral thinking and quick iteration can produce astonishing results in a relatively short amount of time. Students at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design had the opportunity to explore this principle at the 2012 Better World By Design Conference, where they iteratively designed, constructed, and tested paper airplanes. They extended familiar categories of the paper airplane to include designs inspired by frisbees, helicopters, and birds. Within about an hour, participants had completely reimagined the paper airplane, exploring categories that went well beyond their initial conceptions about what a paper airplane was and could be.

The 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.

October 23, 2013 by John Cassidy.

Measuring America’s Decline, in Three Charts

In recent years, a number of international surveys have raised alarms that the United States is falling behind other countries in terms of educational achievement. Now there is another one, and its findings represent a serious threat to the country’s future prosperity.

In basic literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills, the new study shows, younger Americans are at or near the bottom of the standings among advanced countries.


– Read the original article

Recently I was posed this question by a media personality in Ireland and asked to write my comments for an upcoming Q+A TV show on this topic. Here’s my personal view …


The Western education system teaches students to be logically irrational rather than creatively rational. We teach our children to debate and defend their viewpoints rather than to escape and find even better ones. We teach our kids to lock themselves defensively inside the square rather than take an innovative leap outside the square. This makes them very slow thinkers.

Of course, in spite of all this, there are always a few exceptions and, depending on our mood, we either sing their creative praises or we single them out for judgement and correction. Interestingly, there are deep historical reasons for why we do this in our schools and in Western culture a lot can be traced back to Plato’s thoughts about the concept of TRUTH. There are basically two strategies when it comes to TRUTH: defence or search.

Pre-enlightenment thinking was about the DEFENCE of truth. “There is only one truth”, “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong”, “God is on our side”, “Do what we say, or else”, “We know better than you because we have authority and rank”, “Our truth is the right truth”, “We have THE TRUTH so stop looking elsewhere. Just do as you’re told”. “Kill the infidel”. etc.

This authoritarian approach to ownership and defence of THE TRUTH got going in a big way after St Thomas Aquinas embedded a somewhat distorted view of Plato’s thinking into the Church at a time when the first universities were being set up. And, later when the European education system was being disseminated around the world by Roman-controlled missionaries, this Greco-Roman logic became the basic cognitive operating system for all of Western education.

In Australia, Greco-Roman Logic was imported here about 200 years ago along with rabbits and various other European delights. Even today, our children are still taught the ‘right/wrong’ system of sorting information. “This-is-right-and-that-is-wrong”. Logic is somewhat useful for sorting out the past but totally inadequate for designing much safer and more productive futures. We have come to call this kind of Greco-Roman Logic, ‘inside the square’ thinking.

So what do we see? We see grown-ups deeply trapped in irrational logic in business, in economics, in our legal system and in our parliament. In Canberra, for example, all the adults on one side of the House say “We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Meanwhile, all the adults on the other side of the House say, “No. We-are-right-and-you-are-wrong”. Many of these members of the parliament are highly educated people; lawyers, journalists, business people and teachers. Watching it all on TV can be a most cringing experience. Electors in Australia are deeply dissatisfied with the performance in Canberra and are leaving the established political parties in droves.

Yet there is another strategy for TRUTH other than it’s mere logical defence. Since The Enlightenment we now have the innovative and scientific SEARCH for truth.

To encourage this strategy I use the formula: escape + search = think. If we can first escape from the righteousness of historical or traditional or authoritarian truths we can then search, experiment, and design much better truths. This is an ongoing and never-ending process.

Science offers us the search for much better truths than we currently have and we have developed very powerful tools to assist us in this search. Post-Enlightenment we now have The Scientific Method. We also have Darwinian Thinking. We have the use of evidence. We have the technology for observation and measurement. We have the forensic power of questions. “Why is this so?”, “What is the evidence?”, “What other possible explanation could apply?”, “How do you know?”, “What else have you tried”, “Give me ten other options”, “What are ten other possible explanations?, “Who is doing this differently?”, “How can we make this faster?”, “Why not do an experiment in order to see what happens?” etc. We often call this kind of thinking, ‘outside the square’.

It’s been my experience that although many highly educated Western people do know about The Enlightenment and might even be able to write a short essay on it, they are still very much pre-Enlightenment logical thinkers. Curiously, this is not the case in China. My experience there is that most highly educated Chinese people are post-Enlightenment thinkers and this is giving them a big advantage over their Western competitors. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the next decade.

In short, Western education has been about teaching kids to learn and logically DEFEND THE TRUTH (as revealed by their teachers) rather than giving them the thinking tools to discover much better truths through searching and measurement.

Evidence of this is in the type questions that teachers ask their students in school. There are closed questions that seek a correct answer. e.g. When was the Magna Carta signed? There are open or authentic questions where the teachers can provide an opportunity for the student to do some fresh thinking. e.g. What might have happened if the Magna Carta was never signed?

In one Harvard study of a large group of the top teachers in the US, the teachers were asked to estimate how many authentic questions that they had asked their students in the first semester of that year. The shocking results were: less than 1!!

On this big question about Western education my opinion is: We do not teach our kids to think for themselves. We teach them to learn what we tell them.

As a consequence of that, when we become adults in business, in law, in the media and in government we spend an extravagant amount of our time and energy defending what we believe to be true rather than discovering what we are capable of finding out.

Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than ATTENTION. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.

– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)


Let’s talk about attention.

But first a small experiment.

INSTRUCTION: As soon as you have finished reading this sentence, turn your head around about 180 and describe something you can see that is coloured green and does not belong to you.


OK. Here’s the point. Once you look in a direction it’s easy to see what is there. Here’s how it worked:

1. I gave you the cue above to turn your head and look for something specific
2. You turned your head and looked
3. You saw.

I don’t know where you are right now but most readers would have been able to carry this experiment out successfully, once you decided to look.

Here’s the special insight that I would like you to get now as a result of this little experiment. It will help you get better use out of the cvs2bvs brain software. It’s this:




Managing Your Attention
Many people feel that if there is an opportunity somewhere – a BVS – why, they’ll see it and go get it. They assume the very presence of a BVS will make itself known to them, that it will attract their attention. But no, it doesn’t work that way. You have to direct your own attention.

BVSs are there all the time, you’re tripping over them all day long, literally hundreds of them, but you’re not seeing them. The reason you’re missing them is obvious: It’s impossible to notice a BVS if your attention on defending your CVS.


Attention is the gateway to consciousness. Attention is the business of your mind. Attention is the principal service provided by the management section of your brain which enables you to focus in and have a mind– for you to think about things.

How you move your attention around is very interesting. There are three distinct aspects of attention-directing in your brain:

1. disengagement: escaping from your present fixation of attention
2. movement: movement of attention across the cognos, the vast universe of possible thoughts
3. engagement: attending to a new object out of a competition of an infinite multitude of possible candidates.


The cvs2bvs brain software is designed as a switch that helps you to control your attention and move it around, especially when your attention is habitually focused on your CVS and its defence. CVS2BVS can help you disengage and move your attention away from your CVS and to engage it elsewhere on a BVS.

Pay attention! This is a command with which we are all familiar. We all heard it many times as children and we still hear it (if more subtly expressed) every day in business. We know what it means to direct our attention even though it is something we do inside our head.


For example:

– In a noisy cocktail party, you can hone in on one particular conversation.
– In a business presentation, while presenting to the room at large and doing justice to her presentation as planned, an account executive can shift the attention around in her vision to catch the expression on her executive client’s face while apparently staring intently at her audio-visual.
– A marketing professional can show you how to deliberately shift your attention away from your product-driven strategy to a better client-driven one and then you can notice the way the information before you rearranges itself.
– A habit of attention may mean that the first thing a hairdresser notices about you is your hair while a dentist may notice your smile instead.
– On arriving at O’Hare International airport, I can pick out my driver from the dozens of others waiting even though my name is badly misspelt on his sign.
– An over-critical parent can pick out the one mistake in a child’s work and not see that the child has accomplished a great deal.
– A shared goal, like Sir Bob Geldorf’s Band-Aid, can cue a diverse group of individual and even competitive entertainers to give priority to a certain event where otherwise they would all be paying attention to something else.
– A team leader can pull back the attention of her team to a project-in-hand after a distraction had drawn attention away.
– A specific motion put before the board can focus the attention of the directors after a long and wandering discussion.
– Most languages have a word like Achtung! which focuses one’s attention.


We experience attention as a filter that the management part of our brain applies to the flood of competing information that comes in from our senses.

Attention Disorders
Individuals who have suffered brain-damage can lose their ability to control their attention. Attention disorders are manifested in different ways depending on the nature of the damage. It can take the form of an inability to escape from a particular fixation and so they remain stuck in a viewpoint regardless of the demands of their environment.

Or, damage to the right side of the brain can make it impossible for patients to pay attention to the side opposite the damaged hemisphere even to the point of failing to dress the left side of their bodies.

Sometimes, loss of attention-control means constant and debilitating distraction. This is because a person suffering from an attention disorder cannot prevent attention from being diverted by irrelevant stimuli.

Attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions. The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the very nature of the world we attend to. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I an investigating. my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.

– Iain McGilchrist, The Master and The Emissary