Lateral thinking examples:
Possibly the most quoted examples of lateral thinking are those discussed by Edward de Bono.
The Judgement of Soloman Example
This a story about King Solomon of Israel that can be found in the Hebrew Bible. King Solomon was faced with the dilemma of ruling between two women who were both claiming the same child as their own. Two mothers of infant boys lived in the same house. One of the boys died, and both mothers claimed the surviving infant as their own,
Soloman called for a sword, declaring that he would cut the surviving child in two, with each mother to be given half. One mother didn’t contest the ruling. She declared that if she couldn’t have the child, neither of them could. The other mother though, she couldn’t accept the judgment. She begged Solomon, “Give the baby to her, just don’t kill him!”
King Solomon declared the second woman the true mother because a mother would give up her baby if it was necessary to save the infant’s life. Throughout all of Israel, this wise judgment was to become considered an example of profound wisdom.
Edward de Bono recognized it to be an example of lateral thinking when he first mooted the subject in 1967.
This is another classic lateral thinking example from Edward de Bono
The Tale of Two Pebbles Example
Long ago in a small village in India, a poor farmer owed a great deal of money to an evil moneylender. Apparently, this moneylender was very old and ugly, and he fancied the farmer’s very attractive daughter, so he offered a bargain to the farmer.
The moneylender offered to forgo the debt owed by the farmer if he could marry his daughter. Farmer and daughter were horrified. The moneylender was cunning though and suggested they let fate determine the matter. He told them that he’d put both a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty bag so that the girl could pick one pebble from the bag. The possible outcomes at this point were:
- A black pebble meant she would become the moneylender’s wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven;
- A white pebble meant she need not marry the moneylender and her father’s debt would be paid.
- Refusing to pick a pebble meant that her father would be thrown into debtors jail.
The conversation occurred as they were standing on a pebbled path near a creek. As they talked, the moneylender bent over and picked up two pebbles. As he was picking them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the bag.
At this point, you imagine yourself advising the daughter. What would you tell her?
Using normal (vertical) logic only three possibilities seem possible:
- Refuse to pick a pebble leading to her father having to go to jail;
- Expose the money-lender as a cheat, but her father would end up going to jail anyway.
- She should sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and jail.
The girl’s dilemma cannot be solved with traditional logical thinking. Think of the consequences if she chooses the above logical answers.
Using lateral thinking you devise a far superior outcome and you advise the daughter.
The girl puts her hand into the bag and draws out a black pebble. Without looking at it or allowing it to be seen, she fumbles and lets it fall onto the pebbled path where it becomes lost among all the other pebbles.
“Sorry!” she says. “However, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one.
The money-lender dared not admit his dishonesty. You have changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.
Yet another Edward de Bono classic lateral thinking example, and one that is actually in use today and substantially benefitting the environment.
The River Factory Example
De Bono suggests that “each factory must be downstream of itself”. In other words, factories should be required to have their water intakes downstream from their outflow pipes.
The thinking behind this is that now, the quality of water flowing out of a factory is much more important to that factory. Supposedly, some countries have written this idea into law.
This classic lateral thinking example is one you can easily relate to.
The Bus Stop Example
A man drives along an open, rural and exposed road on a cold, wet and windy night. As he approaches an isolated bus stop he notices that there are 3 people waiting:
- An old lady in urgent need of medical attention;
- His best mate who only recently saved his life; and
- A beautiful girl that he has been wanting to meet and ask out for a while.
He decides to stop and help out, but his car only holds the driver and one passenger. He will not overload his car. What is the best option?
In this lateral thinking classic example, the man uses the circumstances to his ULTIMATE advantage.
The man stops at the bus stop and gets out of his car. He says to his best mate “I know you are great at helping people. Please take my car and get this old lady to the hospital. I will catch the bus with this young lady and keep her safe until it comes”.
He makes a good impression with the young lady, helps his mate, and gets the old lady the help she needs.
This lateral thinking classic example is around in a lot of different versions.
The Yacht Example
A solo sailor aboard a fiberglass yacht decides to dive overboard and see if he can break off some oysters from rocks he can see submerged below the surface. He only has a knife. When he resurfaces, he realizes that he forgot to put the ladder down. The fiberglass sides of the boat are shiny and very slippery. There is no way to climb back on board. The man realizes that he will die if he doesn’t do something.
The solution is to use the knife to cut a hole into the fiberglass hole:
- to make footholes that can be used to climb up; or
- make a hole big enough to crawl through; or
- sink the boat so that he can at least use the lifeboat.
I’m not too sure about this next classic lateral thinking example. It might be true. It’s certainly hilarious.
The Letter From Jail Example
A man who had been locked up in jail for several years knew that his mail was read by the authorities. He and his wife would write to each other on a regular basis. One day, the man received a letter telling him that she wanted to begin planting the vegetable garden but she couldn’t operate the rotor-tiller. The ground was extremely hard and without the aide of the tiller, she didn’t think she could manage the task.
The husband thought about this for a while, and then he wrote back . . . “Stop immediately! Do NOT plant anything in the vegetable garden. That’s where all the money and gold is hidden!!”
About a week later, the woman wrote back to her husband . . . “I knew I married a very smart man. A dozen police officers just left here muddied and exhausted after digging up the vegetable garden for several hours. There will be fresh vegetables on the table by the time you get back home.”
This is a classic example of a business applying lateral thinking to a problem
The Failed Baseball Bat Example
A businessman decides to cash in on a wave of recent enthusiasm in the game of baseball. He orders and pays (non-refundable) for 100,000 baseball bats in advance to be made in China. The Chinese however, know very little about the “science” of making quality baseball bats. When the bats arrive, they are vastly inferior to the bats made in America. They only hit the ball HALF as far.
What does the businessman do?
He turns the situation to his advantage and orders 100,000 baseballs from the Chinese KNOWING that they will also be inferior and not be able to fly as far.
He then promotes his baseball bats and balls as the PERFECT combination for use in the backyard and makes a fortune.
This “real-thing” lateral thinking example actually saved the lives of children.
The Coca-Cola Piggyback Example
In the late 1980’s, one in every five children under the age of five that lived in remote areas of Zambia died because of very simple causes, a significant one being dehydration caused by diarrhea. A man by the name of Simon Berry who worked for the British Aid Program put his mind to the problem.
The task at hand was to somehow organize the efficient and widespread distribution of oral rehydration salts. Transportation and road infrastructure was a disaster in Zambia at this time. Despite numerous and repeated attempts, virtually NOTHING was getting through to the people most in need. He needed to find a solution.
Simon noted something in his widespread travels throughout Zambia . . . no matter how remote the location, Coca-Cola somehow found its way there in reliable quantities. The Coca-Cola organization didn’t have formal organized methods for getting their product through. It was simply a case of the people loving the product so much that the demand found a way through.
Simon eventually created “AidPods”, which were small packages of the badly needed oral rehydration salts that neatly fitted in between the spouts and necks of the Coke bottles. Every carton of Coke delivered in rural areas included the packages. Many lives were saved.
Here is another heart-warming example of lateral thinking saving the lives of chilkdren.
The 4WD Incubator Example
In 1998 Katmandu, Nepal, there was a critical shortage of working incubators for new-born children. An incredible 96% of all incubators in Nepal were out of operation within 5 years of use; broken down and unable to be fixed because of a lack of knowledge.
An aid worker working in Katmandu noticed a strong presence of Toyota 4Runners. They were popular because there was a great deal of local expertise about how to maintain and fix them. There was also lots of spare parts available. It was a thriving industry.
The lateral thinking solution devised by the aid worker was to build incubators out of Toyota spare parts. Because the local mechanics were so familiar with the parts, they easily identified problems and facilitated repairs.
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