The Use of Lateral Thinking

Two or three weeks ago something reminded me of the Oblique Strategies card deck that Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created. Reading its Wikipedia page I’ve spotted a reference to lateral thinking, which was new to me and I thought I’d look that up as well. Eventually it turned out that lateral thinking is quite a new concept and has been coined in the 1960’s by Edward de Bono. I’ve ordered a used copy of his book and started reading a few days ago – this is my overview (or review) of the book.

First of all, this book is very well written. It’s thorough yet easy to understand, which I think is quite rare nowadays. It is also very short (140 pages, pocket-sized), which is very encouraging – it took me about a week to read it and I did not have much time recently.

My key takeaways from this book are:

  • Awareness of the different approaches to problem solving.
  • Understanding of the differences between “vertical” and “lateral” thinking and when each of them is applicable.
  • A bunch of techniques to be used when approaching problems. Among them there are:
    • identification of the dominant idea / approach,
    • searching for inspiration outside of the problem domain,
    • playing around with things.
  • Understanding of how patterns and relations between them lead to their compositions being complex.

The last point is quite interesting because it’s more related to human perception and complexity, not to lateral thinking itself. It boils down to the following observation:

  1. When we explain (or reason about, or design) a complex concept, we can break it into several smaller pieces that are easier to understand.
  2. If the pieces are too simple, relations between them will probably be quite complex. When those pieces are complex, relations between them will be less complex.

This and the fact that lateral thinking is the opposite of being fixed on a single approach, reminded me of the DDD book by Eric Evans, where he states that the ubiquitous language should not be frozen: it should develop in parallel to the model and the software. It is obviously a good fit, since polishing our understanding of the domain of our software sometimes requires looking at things from different angles.

I have already started using some of the techniques mentioned in this book and I’m very fond of these new tools. I think I’ll be practicing more in the nearest future to develop my “lateral muscles”.

This is the second book about thinking I have read this year and I think both of them should be mandatory reading for everybody as they help us use the most powerful tool each of us has got: our minds.