Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Personal Experience of Lateral Thinking

Pluto, dog
I missed the news earlier this week of the death of Ed de Bono. De Bono was the father of lateral thinking, a framework for creative thinking. Wikipedia has a decent outline of his ideas and influence. 

De Bono was one of the authors that most influenced my consulting career. I adopted many of his tools, most of them quite simple, in analyzing business problems and coming up with creative solutions. The tools are especially useful in facilitating groups. I only regret that I have not applied his methods more consistently in client engagements and even in my personal life. 

One of my favorite tools is the random word stimulation, which is great for brainstorming sessions. Simply put, when you are trying to come up with ideas that are "outside the box," you generate a random word (e.g., pick it out of a dictionary) and use that word as a jumping off point to come up with new ideas. The key, as always with brainstorming, is not to look for ideas that make sense, just generate as many as you can.  When you run out of ideas, do another random word, and another. As with any kind of brainstorming, no judgment of the ideas is allowed.  Save that for a later step. 

In explaining this method, I like to point to one experience from a consulting engagement many years ago. My late business partner, Dan Husiak, was leading a client engagement to develop a new business strategy for a division of what was, at the time, one of the largest health plan providers in the U.S.  We had scheduled a brainstorming session the next day, and Dan assigned me to facilitate the session. The objective was to come up with some new out-of-the-box ideas for new products or lines of business. 

I suggested we use random word stimulation and explained how to do it.  Dan didn't like it. 

Dan: You mean you just pull out some random word, like "Pluto?" 

Me: Okay, good example. Do you mean Pluto the planet, or Pluto the cartoon character? 

Dan:  I don't know, just "Pluto." 

Me: Okay, let's think about this. Pluto the planet. It's small, it's far out. We need far-out ideas. Not much there. Now, Pluto the dog. He's a dog. He's an animal. He's a pet.  Hey, we can offer health insurance for pets! 

That was enough to let Dan give me permission to try it the next day. 

The brainstorming session was a success. In fact, at the beginning of the session, I used the "Pluto" story as an example of how to use random word stimulation. After a couple of hours, the client project team had come up with a number of promising new ideas--enough for us to start evaluating them the next day.  

The best part of this story is that at the end of the session, the top executive for the firm's Medicare HMO product line came up to me and said, "I want to talk to you about that pet insurance idea. You know our seniors love their pets, and pet ownership correlates with positive outcomes. We should look into how to offer a pet HMO."  

Keep in mind, this was before health plans for pets were a widespread practice. 

Thinking tools like random word stimulation are not only effective in creative thinking and problem solving. They are also fun. 

Ed de Bono will be greatly missed. But fortunately he left the world with a long list of books, courses, and other publications for learning how to think.  A good place to review them is his website. 

Image credit: By Disney - (this is the Dutch website for Donald Duck Weekblad and other Dutch publications, not a wiki), Fair use,

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