Do you ever wonder why certain leaders seem to achieve success faster?
Pretend you are driving a car in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm and you happen upon three people on the side of the road. One is a frail elderly woman who appears on the verge of collapse. The second is a friend who once saved your life. The third is the romantic interest of your dreams, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet him or her. You only have one other seat in the car.
Who do you pick up?
You can justify picking up any of the three hitch hikers on the side of the road. The elderly woman needs help–it is clear that she won’t last much longer out in the elements. It is logical to think that the friend who previously saved your life demands some serious consideration. But then, as fate would have it, the man or woman of your dreams stands right in front of you and the sooner they get in the car, the sooner your blissful life with them can get started.
So. . . are you any closer to a decision?
Naturally, you pick up the old woman! Then, you give your friend the car keys to drive her home safely while you stay behind with your romantic interest and wait for a bus.
Mr. Snow refers to this as an exercise in lateral thinking. And many successful leaders are good at it.
Lateral thinking approaches a problem from a different point of view, or challenges the stated assumptions. In the above riddle, we are naturally drawn to the easy solution: one seat available, one rider to pick up. With a thoughtful pause, an alternative solution arises.
If you are a leader, you are probably very curious how you could possibly climb the ladder faster in your career. Let’s look at three ways where lateral thinking can help.
#1. What does lateral thinking look like in real life?
Lateral thinking allowed Ronald Reagan to tap into his considerable network developed from years of acting to become the governor of California, and eventually our President. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the same. (Except for the President part.) Lateral thinking prompted Steve Jobs to purchase Pixar from George Lucas after being fired from Apple. These career “pivots” changed the trajectory for Reagan and Jobs, but the same applies for you.
Most of us follow a conventional pattern in our careers. Entry level job, management, middle management, and then a few go onto upper management, and fewer still into executive level jobs. I found myself on this path through my mid-forties until the rug was pulled out from under me. Suddenly, the career I had scripted for myself went off the rails.
Conventional thinking whispered in my ear to dust myself off and get back on the horse in my field in a similar position. Before I could saddle up, however, lateral thinking whispered in my other year: What if you started your own company doing what you love? Would that be crazy?
For the first time, I thought of my career path differently. Nearly four years later, I’m glad I did. What assumptions are you making that need to be challenged? A second career often is the result of solving a problem for someone using your experience and skill set. . .what could that be for you?
#2. How can lateral thinking help a leader succeed?
Lateral thinking does not mean taking shortcuts from work. Even if you come up with the most unique solution to a problem, there will still be hard work to make it come to fruition. Rather, lateral thinking simply reduces the number of cycles we must perform to get our desired results.
Vertical thinking requires us to “pay our dues” and wait patiently for promotion or a new job. Maybe I could have been CEO eventually had I remained in healthcare, maybe not. Lateral thinking made me CEO of my own company instantly. Taking a step sideways allows us to parlay past positions and experience into innovative alternatives. Instead of progressing up the ladder one rung at a time, we switch ladders.
#3. How can a leader harness lateral thinking?
First, let me say this. In my work I find that most leaders fall into either of these categories:
(1) Linear thinkers. . . are those who approach problems, people, or projects systematically. There is a sequential, orderly process to be followed to narrow possibilities to a finite solution.
(2) Lateral thinkers. . .are those who approach problems, people, or projects intuitively. There is usually an out-of-the-box, idea generating, question producing brainstorming that explores possibilities and/or solutions.
And although this is a blog about lateral thinking, both serve a purpose for the leader. If you are a linear thinker by preference, here are some ways to sharpen your lateral thinking ability.
-Enhance your lateral thinking by practicing these behaviors.
-Pause when a problem or project is introduced and ask for multiple opinions.
–Surround yourself with lateral thinkers, identified with the yellow and red boxes at this link.
The simplest way to appreciate lateral thinking comes from research on the difference between young and old brains. The young brain is open to learning, new ideas, and reacts with the world like a sponge–soaking in many possibilities. As we age, our brains shift from learning to efficiency. Therefore, we seek the path of least resistance, or how we can get something done faster, more effectively. While this has its advantages, it often means we stay in deep ruts.
I think Robert Frost was a lateral thinker. Why else would he write: