Oblique strategies for lateral thinking

For years I’ve been fascinated by lateral thinking as a way to solve problems by reasoning in a manner that is not immediately obvious. It involves ideas that may not be obtained by using traditional step-by-step logic. The term was first used in 1967 by psychologist Edward de Bono in his book The Use of Lateral Thinking

It opens up with a scenario where a merchant owes a money-lender a substantial amount of money that will land him in prison. The money-lender offers to cancel the debt if he can marry the merchant’s beautiful teenage daughter. When both the merchant and his daughter are horrified at the prospect, the money-lender suggests a bet. He’s to put two pebbles, one white and one black, in an empty bag. The girl is then to pick out a pebble, and if she chooses the black, she becomes his wife, and the father’s debt is canceled. If she chooses the white, she stays with her father, but the debt is still canceled. The merchant reluctantly agrees, and as they’re standing on a pebble-strewn path, the money-lender stoops down to pick up the two pebbles. As he picks them up, the sharp-eyed girl notices that he takes two black ones and drops them in the bag. What is she to do?

A vertical thinker would see three possibilities:

  1. The girl should refuse to take the pebble.

2. The girl should show that there are two black pebbles in the bag and expose the money-lender as a cheat.

3. The girl should take a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from prison.

None of these suggestions are very helpful, as if she doesn’t take a pebble, her father goes to prison, and if she does, she’s forced to marry the money-lender. While vertical thinkers are concerned that the girl has to take a pebble, lateral thinkers become concerned with the pebble that’s left behind. There’s a clear solution to the dilemma. The girl should draw a pebble from the bag and without looking at it, fumble and let it fall to the path where it will be immediately lost amongst the other pebbles. She should then suggest looking in the bag, and by the color of the pebble that’s left, they will know which one she drew. The remaining pebble will of course be black. It’s an elegant way out. This is lateral thinking.

There’s a variant created in 1975 by musician Brian Eno called Oblique Strategies for lateral thinking. It’s a collection of printed cards in a black box subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas that offers a way to break creative blocks. I’ve been using them for years to generate ideas. There’s an online version of Oblique Strategies that will give you a random card every time. I suggest you try it next time you’re stuck on an idea and you’re looking to break the deadlock.

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