We have mostly got over the generational gap and we are slowly gaining ground on the gender gap, However another kind of gap is blatantly lying open : The gap between the square and the circle.
The growing abyss between the square and the circle mindset will soon have unprecedented and unstoppable effects on our daily lives, on our companies and our society if we do not understand what is at stake.
The square is obviously based on a linear structure. In our prevailing process of thought, we go along lines – sequence – time flow - cause / effect. One thing leads to the other.
You take information and find the consistency, the rules, the patterns. You establish categories. If x = y, y= z, then x=z. It says that if an apple falls to the ground and I can observe that other elements also fall to the ground, there is a common force operating.
Linear thinking breaks information into parts, into smaller and smaller parts to simplify what is complex.
It has brought about rigor, consistency and soundness to our thinking, hence the huge advances we have been witnessing in science in the last three centuries. And science has made our lives progress in such a way that we only swear by it.
In linear thinking, you apply the information from one situation to another : What is true in one condition will be true in another similar condition. This is the basis of standardization. This allows us to process information in bulk and to manage processes.
As we standardize, we can also better control our world. It is an assurance against fear, against risk, against hazard (from the French hasard : chance).
The Linear thinking model is how we are educated at school and it prevails in our way of viewing the world in most fields – science, business, finance, medicine, education.
All our systems go by William Thomson Kelvin’s famous adage which has become a religion even in people domains such as HR. What is not defined cannot be measured. What is not measured, cannot be improved”.
However is that always true ? What is it not taking into account ?
Improvements do not always start from measurements. Einstein had his insight E=mc2 in a dream (yes you read me right) and he spent the 7 years after trying to understand it. When Newton saw the apple fall, he connected dots - what is called an insight - and solved a problem he had already been pondering over. Richard Branson didn’t make measurements before launching his low cost flights against the odds but seized the opportunity when his flight to the British Virgin Islands from Puerto Rico was grounded on the tarmac. He asked for a chalkboard and with all the delayed passengers, pooled a $39 one way ticket to charter a flight so he could go meet his girlfriend again. More often than not, improvements are empirical.
Growth in awareness doesn’t usually come from testing the model first either : there is the phenomenon of belief which leads to changes in paradigms. Black Americans didn’t test out Malcolm X’s vision of equality. They followed and made it come true.
Measurements can be fooled, measurement dysfunctions may arise, measuring the wrong thing. Vasili Alexeyev, a famous Russian super-heavyweight weight lifter, was offered an incentive for every world record he broke. So, he kept breaking world records a gram or two at a time to maximize his reward payout. And, would you measure the success of an event by the number of people turning up or by the outcome efficiency – ideas, solutions, motivation etc… ?
As we standardize, as we generalize, we create the average. What some call the culture of the mediocre. What can emerge as genius, vision, creativity or innovation is stifled. In fact, standardization is the very antonym of DNA, the uniqueness of each self. Standardization seeks order and control, DNA serves the expression of uniqueness and each leap acts as a lighthouse for others to follow.
Our 22nd century perspective on disease derives from linear thinking : when a disease occurs, we directly attack the symptoms or the disease itself without paying attention to the context in which the disease takes place. A by-effect of this upfront approach is the attack on the organism itself. Each of us has a very personal way of creating disease, of reacting to disease and healing from it. Once you are ill, your journey of self-discovery may bring about the cure which standardised means may provide only in part - if ever.
The same goes for traditional medicine which has worked and is still working for many as in the long course of history. The French government is planning to prohibit the use of lavender whilst there is no analysis of each and every one of the 600ish molecules present. The reasoning advocated is to protect the population from any allergens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors etc… which may be present in any of these molecules - overlooking the fact that the effectiveness of these 600 molecules may proceed from the synergy itself ....
Lateral thinking obviously also increases our neural connections and relates our cognitive abilities to our emotional and intuitive intelligence. Edward de Bono (the father of lateral thinking) gave the example of the Judgment of Solomon from the Hebrew Bible to illustrate what lateral thinking entailed. Two women came before Solomon, claiming to be the mother of the same child. So seeming to follow linear thinking, Solomon proposed to split the child in two halves, giving each woman a half. He knew what would happen next : the real mother gave up her child to spare their life. What he did was to make the woman move from linear thinking to connect to her emotional intelligence. This brought out the truth. Lateral thinking brings us closer to wisdom.
Some experts say our governments have dealt with the Covid issue - with linear thinking. Unheedful of the minimal percentage of infection in March 2020, they found a drastic way - not devoid of harmful effects - to protect the 99+ % of the population who didn’t have Covid not making use of their powerful immune system and exposing them to measures which would in turn bring about the health problems we are now witnessing. What if our experts had been invited to think laterally about this global issue ...
In linear thinking, the need for control itself can be exacerbated, We may come to believe that our intelligence stems from our rational mind alone leading us to delude ourselves in trying to live 0% risk (the spermatozoid that manages to cross the egg shell would tell you there is no such thing) – even though there are so many questions that still remain unanswered by science : How does consciousness happen ? How does life spark off ? How does understanding take place ? Linus, Charlie Brown's friend says “Trust the science is the most anti science statement ever. Questioning science is how you do science “. Linear thinking makes scientists look limited when you hear some say things like "We know everything now..."
Circle thinking, lateral thinking or non-linear thinking takes into account the whole in an intuitive way. Nothing exists separately from the whole and nothing exists WITHOUT the whole. A disease is set in the context of a system (body-emotional-mind-spiritual) itself within the context of ever growing systems (family – society – culture – country – world …). When absenteeism or work accidents proliferate, linear thinking would say : more health insurance, better work conditions. This may likely be only part of the problem. We have to look into the work environment but also the motivation, the relationships or the history. Sustainable solutions are a product of circle thinking, which expands the options.
Thinking out of the box, brainstorming are the offspring of lateral thinking, thinking in all directions. Lean and Agile themselves hold people as a pillar, equally important as processes. Tools such as the stand up meeting is a way to share first hand information by and with the people themselves in a process of lateral connection and the fishbone analysis is itself destined to trigger lateral thinking.
In companies, lateral thinking allows you to respond fast and get round the limitations you may believe to be daunting. It allows you the flexibility you need to grow emotional intelligence and understand other approaches to problems. It helps those who learn valuable tools as varied as even the Enneagram or Lean to stop using them blindly and better adapt to the situation. The rational mind tends to make us rigid and self-sufficient. Lateral thinking allows us the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities on the market, to see new possibilities and make use of all situations and of all the talents around us to their best. It predicts novel directions way before the voice of the customers themselves - who would have bet for the technological revolution but for Steve Jobs and his like ...? All departments - R&D and Marketing of course, but also GM, HR, Sales, Finance, Operations - can benefit from lateral thinking. It is a pillar for Innovation or Communication.
Companies can promote this culture in different ways. It enables start ups to devise ways to move forward overcoming the obstacles for reaching the market with less expenses. How to do it ? Once you have carried out lateral thinking workshops, these techniques have to be used systematically within your work meetings taking time to deal with the issues you have. De Bono proposed exercises such as the 6 thinking hats. (If you don't know it yet, this is how it goes. The issue is first exposed : the person wearing the white hat looks for the data and facts, the red hat expresses the feelings and emotions, the black hat, the critic all the risks and negative points, the yellow optimistic one explores the possibilities and the positive outcome, the green hat for creative solutions however absurd and the blue hat for order to manage the decision making processes).
Amongst others is the provocation creative technique announcing you are about to come out with a provocation by announcing it with the interjection PO (Provocative Operation) ! Someone makes a deliberately stupid statement such as "We can talk under the sea. PO !". The consequences of the statement explore the benefits thereof, what special circumstances would make it a sensible solution, what principles would be needed to support and make it work, how it would work and what would happen if the sequence of events was changed. Einstein himself exercised what he called thought experiments : "What would I see if I was travelling at the speed of light?"
The underlying assumption in lateral thinking is that our usual assumptions may be false or restrictive. If they are false, then this helps us bring agility to our minds and processes of thoughts, curb the prevailing view that we are right or hold to our beliefs fanatically. It is a way to foster a culture of flexibility of thought and means. Along with the fun, it helps teams relax, become comfortable around each other in challenging situations and seize windows of opportunity.
Also, meditation or mindfulness help release the grip our psyche and usual behaviour have on our habitual way of thinking and open the door to lateral thinking. As my clients know, I myself prone mindfulness in new natural settings so as to learn about being part of our environment - a greater whole. The form these activities take and the focus will then depend on the mission and vision of the company : shall we go looking out for the properties of plants or shall we explore Nature as the reflection of a Lean system are just a few topics which can connect the dots and empower a company in its purpose.
Some people are born with lateral thinking skills. Others have developed them struggling through the events of life and working their way out of constraints. A very proper CV may not hold the array of possibilities you will get from a candidate with varied experience but not such an academic background. However, we can all learn. If in some areas of the company, a more rational approach is no doubt indicated, one or two such elements on your team of managers will boost your resources and lead you off the beaten track. Building a culture of lateral thinking can but optimise your possibilities.