Think laterally

It is Edward de Bono’s name that is most closely associated with the notion of lateral thinking, although the basic idea behind it (the importance of thinking creatively and not getting stuck in tramlines) long predates his work. What de Bono did was to put the ideas across clearly and effectively.

In our day-to-day lives we generally rely on established ways of thinking and behaving. Life would be intolerable if, at every step of the way, we had to think consciously about what we are going to do next or how we are going to do it. Established patterns are needed for dealing with mundane, routine matters. However, the price we pay for this convenience is that there is a danger that we will get stuck in those routines (‘tramlines’, as they are often called) when we need to be thinking more reflectively about the situation we find ourselves in. This is where lateral thinking comes in.

From time to time we will come across situations where our usual ways of operating, our usual problem-solving strategies, are not working – they just don’t fit the situation we are in. We are then faced with two main options:

  1. We can carry on doing what we normally do, even though this is clearly not working (or would be clear if we thought about the situation); or
  2. We can start to think laterally – that is, explore other ways of tackling the situation by thinking creatively and not following our usual tramlines.

It does not take much to work out that Option 2 is likely to be much more fruitful and therefore a much wiser course of action. However, despite this, it is amazing how often people will stick with Option 1. This is no doubt partly because, in a situation where things are not working out, we can become anxious. That anxiety can then lower confidence and discourage us from trying anything new – with the result that we stay within our (now largely ineffective) tramlines. In some situations like this the consequences can be relatively minor. However, in many circumstances the consequences can be quite serious – for example, where someone becomes dependent on alcohol or drugs or engages in other self-destructive behaviours. Their reluctance to go beyond their tramlines can then prove to be highly detrimental over time.

So, how do we break out of those tramlines? A key part of the answer to this is being prepared to try new things – nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the cliché has it. Try the following:

  • Brainstorming This involves writing a list of as many ways forward as you can think of, however crazy, zany or impracticable they may initially seem. Most of them, when you subsequently review the list, will be unworkable. But, having let your creative juices flow, you may well find that there are some gems among the not-so-helpful ideas that give you a fresh insight and some potential ways forward. Many people misunderstand brainstorming; they see it as a straightforward process of making a rational list of possibilities. In this way the creative element and the value it offers are lost.
  • Learning from others How do other people tackle the issues you now face? Is there anything you can learn from them? Different people will often have different problem-solving styles or strategies, and so looking at the diverse range of options available can give you some good ideas at times.
  • Changing perspectives This involves trying to move away from your own preconceptions. It involves imagining that you are approaching the situation from a different perspective, wearing somebody else’s hat, as it were. Think of someone who occupies a different role from yourself. How might they view the situation differently? Does that open up doors to approaching your problem form a different angle? A variation on this theme is to give yourself advice. Imagine someone coming to you with the problem that you now face. What advice might you give them? This technique does not work for everyone, but it can be very effective in some circumstances as it involves moving away from our usual viewpoint.

Lateral thinking can take some time to get used to, but the positive results it can bring make it a very worthwhile investment of time and effort.

Turn weaknesses into strengths

Many years ago, a trusted mentor said to me: ‘Neil, you have a lot of strengths, and you keep playing to them. How will you develop new strengths if you are constantly focusing on what you are already good at?’.  He went on to explain that what I was doing was very common, but it was also a very common way of standing in the way of my own development. What he encouraged me to do was to be clear about what areas I was not so strong in and look at how I could improve in those areas. From this discussion emerged the idea of turning weaknesses into strengths.

It is easy to feel embarrassed about what we are not very good at. The fear of being looked down upon, or even mocked is a strong and understandable one. So, it is not at all surprising that we have a strong attraction to sticking to what we are good at. Our self-esteem can suffer if we stray too far into the territory of ‘I’m not very good at this’. But, if we take it step by step, keep the process manageable and not overwhelming, then we can have a lot of success in ironing out weaknesses and, where possible, actually building them up into strengths.

One useful tool for doing this is a SWOT analysis. This involves identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This can be done in a helpful and straightforward way by taking a sheet of paper and dividing it into four sections, with Strengths and Weaknesses across the top and Opportunities and Threats across the bottom. Begin with the positives (Strengths and Opportunities), then balance this out with the negatives (Weaknesses and Threats). Once you have completed this your next step can be to look at how you can use elements of the positives to address elements of the weaknesses. For example, if you are good at communicating in writing, but tend to get nervous and tongue tied when communicating face to face, you can start to think about what it is that makes you good at communicating in writing (for example, being clear about what point you are trying to put across) and seeing whether you can adapt that to how you communicate in person.

This is just one example of what can be achieved through a SWOT analysis; there are, of course, many more. It is a case of seeing what works for you. If a SWOT analysis does not appeal to you, then there is no need to use it. You can simply identify what areas you feel you could improve on and see what steps you feel you could take to develop your abilities.

Whether or not you use a SWOT analysis, what can also be helpful is to learn from others. Who do you know who is good at something you struggle with? Watch them carefully. What is it they do that makes them so good? Is there anything you can learn from that? If you know them well enough, and trust them, why not talk to them about what it is they do so well? See if they have any tips or suggestions that may be of value to you.

But, an important rider is that you should not simply copy what they do. What works for them will not necessarily work for you. So, unthinkingly just aping their behaviour may cause you some difficulties. But, if you look more reflectively at what it is they are doing and how they are doing it, there may well be some very important lessons you can learn.

Turning weaknesses into strengths is not compulsory, of course, but it can give you new opportunities, new avenues for making progress and a real sense of achievement.

For more information about SWOT analysis and other useful ‘tools’, see Thompson, N. (2012) The People Solutions Sourcebook, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.