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Linear vs. Lateral Thinking: Knowing When to Shift Gears

Thinking is the engine that drives our decisions, solutions, and innovations. But like any engine, its efficiency hinges on using the right gear for the terrain. In the vast landscapes of problem-solving, the terrain varies, requiring shifts between linear and lateral thinking.

Linear Thinking: This is a step-by-step, sequential approach to problem solving. Like a train on its tracks, it follows a predetermined route, considering one thing at a time. It’s something that comes easy, you can do it with a hangover. Because all the associated things are filed closely in your brain.

Lateral Thinking: Lateral thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono in the 1960s to describe a creative, non-traditional approach to problem-solving and idea generation. Unlike linear or vertical thinking, which follows a logical step-by-step progression, lateral thinking seeks to move away from established patterns and preconceived notions to come up with innovative solutions. It’s unexpected, and is more promiscuous and less faithful.

Distinguishing between the two

While linear thinking is methodical, systematic, and logical, focusing on detail and following set processes; lateral thinking jumps from one topic to another, exploring multiple solutions and innovative pathways.

Linear paths and lateral roads

  1. Education Systems: Many education systems prioritise linear thinking, emphasising rote learning and structured processes. But when it comes to fostering creativity, innovation, and critical thinking, a more lateral approach can be beneficial.
  2. Business Strategy: While businesses require structured processes and strategies, clinging solely to them can stifle innovation. Companies that disrupted their industries, like Airbnb or Uber, didn’t use a linear model; they thought laterally.
  3. Personal Relationships: Ever tried solving a dispute with logic alone? Relationships aren’t always linear and certainly never logical. They require empathy, understanding, and often, a creative approach to resolution.
  4. Urban Planning: While cities require structured grids and plans, some of the most loved urban spaces evolved organically. Focusing solely on linear growth can lead to lost opportunities for spontaneous, creative communal spaces

Examples, please!

  1. Cooking:
    • Linear: Following a recipe step-by-step, measuring out each ingredient precisely, and ensuring that each direction is followed to the letter.
    • Lateral: Using the recipe as a loose guideline, substituting ingredients based on what’s available or tweaking the method based on past experiences or personal preferences.
  2. Travel:
    • Linear: Using a navigation system to determine the quickest route from point A to point B, and then following the directions in sequence without deviation.
    • Lateral: Choosing a scenic route to enjoy the drive, even if it takes a bit longer, or opting to avoid highways because you want to discover local sites and eateries along the way.
  3. Building:
    • Linear: Following the assembly instructions provided in the manual in a sequential order, completing each step before moving on to the next.
    • Lateral: Foregoing the manual entirely and trying to assemble the piece based on the picture on the box, or even customising the piece to better fit personal needs or aesthetic.
  4. Money:
    • Linear: Creating a monthly budget by listing all known expenses in advance and allocating funds to each category based on past spending patterns.
    • Lateral: Instead of sticking strictly to a predetermined budget, you invest in an unexpected but promising opportunity, or allocate funds towards a new hobby or experience that wasn’t previously considered.
  5. Studying:
    • Linear: Reviewing class materials in a chronological order, starting with the first lesson and progressing in sequence until the most recent lesson.
    • Lateral: Instead of linear revision, you create a mind map to understand the interconnections between topics or engage in group discussions to gain multiple perspectives on the subject matter.

Picking the right lane

Recognising when to employ linear or lateral thinking can:

  • Enhance problem-solving skills.
  • Foster innovation and creativity.
  • Lead to more effective decision-making processes.
  • Allow for a more holistic understanding of complex issues.

The terrain of our challenges varies, and so should our thinking. By understanding when to think linearly and when to diverge laterally, we can navigate problems more efficiently and uncover solutions that might otherwise remain hidden. Next time you’re faced with a challenge, ask yourself: “Is this a train track, or is it open road?”

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