When I was at Microsoft, we hired a creative thinking specialist on one occasion as our guest speaker at an event we held each year to review the trends in the technology industry and the marketing approaches we were using in support of our products. His name was
De Bono’s approach of lateral thinking says that given the “file cabinet” analogy of the human brain, you need to stop reaching for the files and think laterally, in other directions, and find new ways to improve and to solve problems.
The power of this simple idea should not be underestimated. For example, in the technology intense industries that move very fast as the underlying technologies rapidly evolve, clinging to the status quo can be deadly.
Here is a very recent example of not thinking laterally:
In 2007, Blackberry devices were the badge of modernity. Rarely would you be in a business meeting without someone checking their email on this ingenious device. In 1998 when RIM, the parent company, went public the stock was $10/share. By the end of 2007, it was in the $130 range. Blackberry owned the smartphone business. That same year of 2007 was when the iPhone was introduced and the Android operating system was released for vendors like Samsung to use for their smartphone entries.
From 2007 until 2012, Blackberry just watched as the touchscreens, high speed internet connectivity, and useful downloadable apps became the rage. In 2012 its stock sat at $7/share. The founders/co-CEOs were basically caught in the trap De Bono describes. They continually used their 2007 mental model, and they did not permit themselves to think any other way.
Finally the RIM board of directors replaced the co-CEOs who had been in place since the beginning, but it was too late. Today, Blackberry is a small and dying business.
So…how can De Bono’s lateral thinking model help a leader?
Here are two things that leaders should do to encourage lateral thinking and generate improvement:
- Continually Demand Fresh Ideas – Constantly ask for and reward ideas that change current practices for the better, improve current products and services, etc. Encourage people to take time to stop and think about the current practices/products and other ways or features that are clearly superior. Explaining the lateral thinking concept may help in making sure people understand you want fresh thinking and approaches.
- Protect Your Innovators – Let’s face it, there is a lot of momentum in the status quo. Fresh approaches that require change are very threatening to the folks who have grown very comfortable with the routine they carry out each day. The status quo seekers can be remarkable effective in suffocating change if it is not adequately protected by a courageous leader.
It is amazing how the human brain can be a limiter since its default mode is to select the comfortable well-traveled path. On the other hand, as De Bono points out, it can be trained to brainstorm fresh approaches if we can just stop reaching so quickly for the status quo file!
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