What do Post-it Notes, the iPhone, the minivan, and the printing press have in common? They are all inventions that changed industries and lives forever. They are also examples of how innovators connected the dots from different concepts and industries to create groundbreaking new ideas and inventions.
The boxes we create for ourselves
We tend to think within the boxes we create for ourselves. We get comfortable in our jobs, our surroundings, and our experiences. We can become an expert in these areas, but we then put the blinders on and forget to see what else there is in the world. We do not see how developments in other industries or areas of life can benefit what we are doing. We need to develop the skill of lateral thinking, which is defined as the ability to think broadly and across different areas of life to connect new ideas and create something new and different.
How the Post-it Note illustrates lateral thinking
The story of the Post-it Note illustrates how seemingly unrelated items come together to create something brilliant. 3M scientist Spencer Silver developed a weak adhesive material in the late 1960s. There seemed to be no practical use for this adhesive, because it did not appear to be very sticky. Silver’s colleague Art Fry was having difficulty marking the pages in his hymnbook, and he thought the “poor adhesive” would help him create better bookmarks. By 1980, 3M was selling Post-it Notes worldwide. Had Fry not connected the ability of a “weak adhesive” to help him solve the problem of marking places in a book, one of 3M’s most successful products may have never seen the light of day.
How you can practice lateral thinking
There are four ways to improve your ability to think laterally. Whether we are inventing products, writing books, or developing new business ideas, we all must improve how we think across boundaries instead of just deepening our current thought patterns.
1. Think about how different areas of life fit into your business – We play many different roles in our lives. Is there an area of your life where you are experiencing a problem or a “pain point”? In 2007, two college basketball coaches were thinking about how bedsheets could be more comfortable. Both coaches were also former athletes and were familiar with fabric used to make uniforms and workout gear more comfortable. The coaches started Sheex and eventually left their coaching jobs to start a new business.
2. Read many different book types and subjects – I do a poor job of reading a narrow list of book topics. I am constantly reading business books, but I should be reading more widely. If you read a lot of non-fiction, read some fiction books. If you read business books, start reading biographies. Open your reading to see different points of view.
3. Think of many ideas first, then narrow those ideas – Tim Hurson’s book “Think Better” highlights how we must think of many ideas before selecting the best ideas. Only by thinking of many different ideas can we then find the best ideas to execute.
4. Adopt a “testing mindset” – Some of our new ideas will fail. The only way to know what works and what doesn’t is to test ideas and record the results. We should always be testing new ideas and changing our mindsets based on what we learn.
When we learn to connect the dots of our lives and recognize patterns, we will develop new ways of thinking. How will you start to adopt a lateral thinking mindset?
Photo by jillallyn via Flickr Creative Commons