Innovate Through Lateral Thinking

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Innovation and lateral thinking are both important things, why it makes sense to combine them. Find out how you can do this in a few simple steps!

One day a lion went on the hunt for gazelles. The lion believed that his might, roar and magnificent physique were enough to stun the gazelles, to petrify them and lead them right into his open jaws. He was wrong. The gazelles were quick on their feet, and quite easily outran the King of the beasts. The lion used status quo thinking. Why wouldn’t the loudest, the most reputed, the most known individual not score big ones every time? Maybe the gazelles relearned running routes through the safari and disrupted the lion’s usual run-of-the-mill hunt!

In January I had the pleasure of attending a stellar Business Forward webinar featuring Shane Snow, author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators and Icons Accelerate Success. This book is a must read for entrepreneurs and just about anyone in the game of life who would like to do things better the lateral way. Shane has many examples where lateral thinking works wonders to innovate anything; the small stuff – using a can opener to cut open hand-destroying plastic, to the big stuff – where viewing how the Formula 1 Pit Team works saved lives at a top children’s hospital in the UK.

Keep in mind that Smartcuts doesn’t promote cutting out important steps in creating projects, businesses or any other endeavors. On the contrary, Shane’s message is simple – by thinking creatively non-linearly, and by using leverage to outsource your weaknesses and capitalize on your strengths, you can create big things. My mentor, a renewable energy tech Venture Capitalist, always says to me “look at everything you see and constantly think of ways to improve it.” I for one would like to improve on how to get dirty dishes from the table in to the dish washer without anyone lifting them. The power of lateral thinking may well invent a suction mechanism from table to kitchen to cupboard by observing mechanisms from a dentist’s teeth cleaning procedure!

One of my most favorite real life examples of lateral thinking comes from Malawi. William Kamkwamba, a 15 year old from Dowa, Malawi, spent much time at a small local library after severe drought prevented his family from sending him back to school. In this library, William found a book on how to build a windmill, and so harness energy to power electricity. The young man always had a fondness for electronics, and decided that he was going to build the windmill. But how? Where could he possibly find the resources? Village trash. Even under harsh duress from family and neighbors, William continued on in his quest, until he built a windmill from trash that powered electricity in his family’s house. Today, William Kamkwamba has completed his Bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. And very important, William Kamkwamba, through his Moving Windmills Project Foundation, has helped countless villages in Malawi set up their own windmills.

It is astounding how true innovation stems from creativity when there is everything to gain on a creative chance. That is the power of lateral thinking.

So how do you really begin to think laterally?

Michael Schrage, Research Fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management, examines innovation and bringing focus into lateral thinking via experimentation for the most leveraged results. In The Innovation Hypothesis, Schrage’s main viewpoint is that good ideas wrongly eclipse focused innovation. Where innovation is a means to a value-added end, it is necessary to:

Get more specific in idea creation.

William Kamkwamba’s windmill may seem blue sky to us in the big picture, but his experimentation was very specific and focused; he followed instructions, came up with parts, and experimented until the windmill worked.

Experiment more in terms of volume.

See lateral thinking not as a brainstorming, but as a structured investment, a discipline and a tool to constantly add future value.

View innovation not as the end, but as a means to an end.

William Kamkwamba did not decide to build the windmill to be innovative, but to solve a dire problem. Innovation is in the process, with concrete value being embedded in the final output.

Understand one’s Organizational Innovation Culture and where resistance to this culture stems from:

  • Is the culture internal centric (we like it this way)
  • Is the culture customer centric (the customer rules)
  • Is the culture stakeholder centric (external factors rule)

Use available tools.

Schrage emphasizes that we are not necessarily smarter than our predecessors, but we do have more sophisticated “instruments.” We do not have to reinvent the wheel, but have focused, innovative experiments to add constant, leveraged value added to it. William Kamkwamba didn’t invent the windmill, but in his context, he added value.

Take a stand.

Don’t be the overconfident status quo lion. Experiment more, understand resistance to innovation, and look at everything with an aim to specifically improve. Be the futuristic yet humble gazelle that changes the landscape of the Serengeti forever.



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