Creative people will often describe playing with an idea. What do they mean? How can you play with something that isn’t tangible?
Ideas can feel alive, and they change and morph through the creative process. Play is one of the best ways to help an idea evolve; wordplay—manipulating the actual language of an idea—is one of the most fundamental ways to explore. Let’s take a look at how that works.
You’re working on a product called "Succeed!" that is intended to help students succeed in college by taking the right classes at the right time.
You might start with a traditional, conservative articulation of the product’s value: Plan your schedule. Schedule- planning is a utility that you would typically build and move on. But first, let yourself free-associate off the word “schedule,” and see where you end up.
For example, the word might make you think of time, and “time” could lead you to the “sands of time”—the hourglass, with a trickle of sand falling from one bulb to the other. Sand, in turn, might prompt ideas about the ocean and the beach. The free association is a chain, moving quickly from one idea to the other.
So, we have “Schedule”, “Sand”, “Hourglass”, “Ocean” and “Beach.” What can we do with that?
What if managing a schedule were more like looking at the vast expanse of potential classes (a beach) and building a schedule out of the sand? And why not? During the planning process, schedules can be flexible: you can build a schedule, explore its trajectory, take pride in what you’ve made, and knock it down, as if it were a sand castle.
This style of wordplay led my former company MyEdu to a planning tool that does those things: It allows a student to build a schedule, look at it, knock parts of it down, and rebuild them in a new way. The planner leveraged a design principle of impermanence, so students could change their mind. They took full advantage of that principle. The schedule-planning tool was one of MyEdu’s most used products (and before MyEdu’s 2012 acquisition, the company boasted more than 2 million users)..
Take a second and reflect on how you felt as you read this story of wordplay. Chances are, you felt one of two things. You might have felt that it made a lot of sense: Each word built on the last, creating a landscape of metaphor that drove a new way of thinking about—and a new solution to—an old problem.
Or, you might have discounted the entire process out of hand. You might have thought, “That’s obvious—of course you would want to try on schedules rather than just locking in to one.” But thinking that the end is obvious, although common, is fair only in retrospect. When such thinkers see the end, they get the benefit of a backwards trail: There’s an inevitability to it.
This wordplay is a part of a broader creative strategy called lateral thinking—a creative process of thinking “around” an idea. That improves on the typical linear way of attempting to solve a problem.
Here’s an example of linear thinking:
At Succeed!, we’re trying to solve a problem related to students dropping out of school. First, we might try to identify why they drop out. Academia is expensive; it seems to make sense that the cause is high tuition costs, and research supports that idea. So we would walk a linear path from that cause to a solution. We can help students deal with high tuition by giving them loans. We can provide loans based on students’ ability to repay those loans. We can look at their credit and employment histories to approve students for a loan.
We’ve identified a path that tracks in a thoughtful way from problem to solution. This form of linear thinking is safe because each assumption along the way seems reasonable. It makes sense to think students drop out because they can’t pay, that a loan is a reasonable response to inability to pay, and that loans should be secured based on credit history.
But that sensible, reasonable path doesn’t allow for the breadth of innovative thinking. Imagine tracking the path of a seemingly unrelated provocation towards a solution. In that case, “logical” and “linear” aren’t much help.
Try this out, and see how you feel about the process.
Why do students drop out? Because they don’t have any beautiful flowers.
Wait, what? What do flowers have to do with academic attrition?
Explore a chain of words related to flowers: the word itself, then beauty, color, happiness, sunshine, warmth, growth, hugs. The words spark other, related terms; it’s a chain of ideas, and we can follow that chain forever. Because the words have no clear link to academia, we could dismiss them out of hand. Instead, let’s give them a chance.
Warmth, growth, hugs—without hugs, perhaps people feel alone, and when they do, perhaps they drop out. What if we could give students virtual hugs, at the moment when they feel down? What if we could surprise them with flowers in their dorm room during final exams? What if students could share incomplete projects with other classmates, who could build on those ideas—prompting growth?
Let’s try the exercise with another provocation based on why students might be dropping out. This time, let’s go with something really arbitrary: combination locks.
Again, the prompt sparks relationships—lock, security, control, secret, steel, hardened, rigid, closed. Also as before, while the relationships don’t clearly link to education, we can find our way around to the topic if we try: Students aren’t in control. The academic process feels closed and rigid. Students can’t find the secret to success because they feel as though it’s locked away from them. The lateral connection opens up new ways to think about old problems.
Our prompts—students drop out because they don’t have any flowers and students drop out because of combination locks—assert a deliberately absurd, unreasonable form of causality. But although they don’t mirror our understanding of the world, as provocations, these phrases are hugely valuable.
Unlike established connections, like high tuition as a cause of attrition, these lateral connections seem obvious only in retrospect . The spreading word-to-word activation leads to unexpected paths. Those unexpected paths activate new solution spaces in the brain, which in turn lead to unexpected problem frames. By pursuing a path of lateral thinking, problem frames can emerge in innovative ways. Simply, lateral thinking forces creativity.
The ideas that lateral thinking generates are fragile, though. It’s too easy to write them off. Rigid, logical business cultures often view this type of thinking as childish, irrational, unproductive, and maybe even “dumb.” They implicitly sweep it aside, while supporting proposals, agendas, and ideas backed by hard data. In a culture that supports and funds only linear ideas, lateral thinking can’t win.
Instead, this innovative approach to innovation requires a culture that embraces this sort of play. Employees in this culture feel encouraged to try on these new ideas and see where they go.
My lateral-thinking workshops with executives produce a variety of reactions. People from creative cultures tend to wordplay with abandon. Because they don’t worry about how others will perceive their ideas, they tend to generate more ideas, and less predictable or logical ones. On the other hand, executives from other types of cultures often ask whether they are “doing it right”. They tend to look for a single correct answer and avoid risky ideas. And they often discount the entire process as silly, juvenile, or a waste of time.
Rules are based on logical responses to potential situations, the presence of a lot of corporate policies and rules usually is a sign that lateral thinking won’t survive. If a company penalizes employees for not submitting a timely expense report, for not following some other documented procedure, or for putting pictures on the wall, employees quickly learn to standardize on logical responses to prompts rather than unexpected ones. The rules seem to say, “we value rule-following more than rule-breaking.” Lateral thinking breaks the rules with language.
Humor is deeply linked to lateral thinking (in fact, a joke’s punch line, which is often nonsensical ahead of time but obvious in retrospect, can be a form of lateral thinking; a culture that supports humor typically supports these lateral leaps. Often, off-color humor is actually an indicator of this type of culture. This isn’t to say we should all be telling offensive jokes, but consider how a lack of political correctness could be tied to a permissive culture. If I worry that someone will audit my jokes for appropriateness, I probably worry about that someone auditing my ideas.
Another signal of lateral thinking can be free-form brainstorming. This brainstorming method has nothing to do with those boring meetings where people talk in circles or in group-think (narrowing to one idea rather than inviting an assortment). In cultures that encourage free-form brainstorming, lateral thinking flourishes.
To recap, here are the signs of a creative culture that embraces lateral thinking:
It’s hard to shift a culture, particularly one infused with staid thinking. It’s not good enough to simply bring in people who are open to irrational ideas or who tend to reject policy and rules out of hand—they will be like salmon, swimming against the current. Instead, a cultural shift around these ideas takes time and needs to be (somewhat ironically) logically and methodically designed. This strategic shift is as important as identifying new markets or launching new products and services.
To make that shift, as a leader, you can compensate, promote, and reward people who play and explore. Make it obvious that playful and eccentric employees are promoted. And you can analyze and remove pointless rules and policies that have “always been there.”
Takeaway: Remove rules, reward play, and make it clear that you value exploration over results.