What are some examples of flexibility and lateral thinking?
September 7, 2017 7:52 AM   Subscribe

I find myself engaging in black and white thinking, assuming that there's only one way forward, only one solution. That is generally incorrect. What are some examples I can keep in mind when trying to solve a problem?

I want to be less of a goat head butting a fence (cute), and more like tree growing through a car.
posted by aeighty to Human Relations (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Gordian Knot was the first I'd heard of the term lateral thinking, and is a bit of a cultural touchstone. Edward de Bono has written several books about the topic, some of which are all about lateral thinking puzzles/games.
posted by kimota at 8:30 AM on September 7, 2017

Best answer: Have you seen Jurassic Park? Even better, have you read the book? It's ok if you haven't, but I watched/read JP when I was very young and find myself coming back to the things I learned from it often in my day to day life.

Here's the thing with Jurassic Park: in Jurassic Park, everyone who gets eaten gets eaten because they assume there's only one way to solve a problem.

• When they built their computer system (spoiler for a 27 year old book coming up, watch out), the JP architects were only concerned with losing dinosaurs. They never thought they'd face a situation with extra dinosaurs, so capped their counting system at the exact number of dinosaurs they expected to have. This was catastrophic. They weren't thinking ahead and everyone who designed that system was later eaten by a dinosaur.

• Wu, who designed the dinosaurs, doesn't really think of them as animals. He built them from scratch and created them from nothing, and doesn't expect them to act like sentient creatures with an intelligence of their own. He starts coming around and realizes he may have made mistakes, but not soon enough. He assumed everything would go according to his original plan and thus gets eaten by a dinosaur.

• In the movie, when Sattler is running to the power shed to save everyone, Muldoon covers her and stalks a raptor. He assumes the only raptor he's got to deal with is the one in the sights of his gun. This was a mistake. A second raptor attacks from the side. Guess what, he gets eaten by a dinosaur.

On the other hand, creative thinkers survive and thrive. Note that Grant, who is lost in the park with the kids and, importantly, adapts to the changing situation, does not get eaten by a dinosaur. The dinosaurs themselves, though thwarted by a number of genetic roadblocks, adapt to their environment astonishingly well and devise ways around the limits that have been built into them.

So when you're problem solving, think about if you were in a Jurassic Park situation. There are literal velociraptors who will eat you if you're not ready to find a creative solution. Be flexible, don't get eaten by a dinosaur. It's that simple. Adapt or die.
posted by phunniemee at 8:35 AM on September 7, 2017 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I just finished reading a fluffy milSF series (the Belisarius series, by Eric Flint) where the whole point of the main character's competence is that he approaches problems obliquely. It's fun and generally kind, for military fiction, and I'd cheerfully recommend it.

The takeaway, though, is that the way to find these oblique approaches is to keep your goal in mind - not the goal of your specific plan, but your big-picture goal. If you can think about what your ultimate priorities are, you can find more ways to them than if you get stuck on the intermediate priorities. You can lose the war by being too focused on winning a given battle.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:45 AM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

It might help if you could provide some examples of times when you have engaged in black and white thinking in the past.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:23 AM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't remember whether it's in Fisher & Ury's Getting to Yes or Cause & Weinberg's Are Your Lights On? (both of which would be good for you to read), but:

Two patrons sharing a study table in a library are arguing over whether to open a window near them. The librarian asks them what they want.

One says: to get fresh air.
The second says: to avoid a cold draft.

She thinks a moment, then opens a window further away, thus fulfilling both their needs.
posted by brainwane at 11:23 AM on September 7, 2017

In your spare time you could try giving yourself some creative brainstorming time. The classic "how many uses can you think of for a paper clip?" question comes to mind. You could repeat this with any number of office supplies, just by telling yourself that there are no wrong or silly answers.

I also remember hearing on a podcast somewhere about a school teacher who wanted to combat the risk of his student plagiarising papers by assigning prompt where student would argue a novel but utterly nonsense point, such as using Shakespeare's Othello to argue that the character Othello is a whale. Inherently silliness seems to be a theme here :) but you do get your brain more used to exploring new options which can help you apply them to real world problems.
posted by Drosera at 11:28 AM on September 7, 2017

Abraham Wald
posted by rhizome at 11:55 AM on September 7, 2017

Best answer: Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies isn't exactly what you're looking for, but might be helpful.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:03 PM on September 7, 2017

Best answer: I like to go to extremes in order to properly take a stroll around the solution space: how would I do this as a billionaire? What if I was living in the street? What's the worst possible solution? What would it look like if I could do magic? What if I wanted the opposite? What if I was an employee trying to exfiltrate data? If I was prepared to sacrifice my life to the cause? If someone put a gun on me and told me to solve it right in this room?

Extremes, like purposeful silliness as seen above, don't present the solution but may make the solution easier to find.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:42 PM on September 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Your at the base of a mountain with several paths to the top. Which path is the objectively best path to take?
a) the fastest, most direct?
b) the easiest, least taxing?
c) the most scenic?

Of course this is not really answerable without any additional context, and one could imagine a hyper competitive athlete, a mobility impaired elderly person, and a nature photographer all having very black and white opinions on which path is "best". One could also have different opinions based on all kinds of variables (mood, weather, etc.).

In conclusion, black and white is a land of contrasts.
posted by forforf at 3:08 PM on September 7, 2017

I've found some casual games that do this - make me come up with non-obvious ways to solve a puzzle. The Guides was a great one for that, though got too hard for me to keep enjoying. What's Inside the Box and Yellow by Bart Bonte, and, to some extent, the Dooors series. You have to just ignore logic for some of the answers.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 4:36 PM on September 7, 2017

Best answer: I remembered reading about a problem with a creative solution a while ago on AskMe; turns out it was the example in a question about relationship hacks. From this question:

"An example of what I'm talking about: a roommate declared one day that he was no longer willing to share dishes with me: I didn't wash them well enough for his liking, even after repeated reminders. Well, that sucked -- it would be extra time, expense, and bother. But, we were able to talk about it calmly, and we worked out that really it was only the glasses that I drank milk out of which weren't getting cleaned well. So I suggested that I get a set of milk-drinking-glasses, just for me, and that we continue to share the rest of the dishes. And it worked! We never fought about dishes again. The lesson I learned from that: try to whittle a problem down to its smallest core, and solve that."

It always stuck out to me as a really good way to distill a problem down to its essence and think creatively about different ways to accomplish the same goal.
posted by stellaluna at 4:40 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a personal example: a few years ago I was flying to China to visit my LDR partner, and was going to first make a layover at LAX before making the transpacific leg. It'd been almost a year since we'd seen each other, so I was really looking forward to it. Alas, I arrive at check-in to find out first that my flight to LAX was delayed, and then canceled; I was not directly notified by United of this until the next day (lesson: don't fly United). The China trip was planned to be just 2 weeks, so losing even a day felt like a huge bite out of our limited time together, and it would have been easy to try and move hell and high water to find some other flight itinerary to get me there as fast as I could. It's what I would've expected of myself, since I've also historically been more of a fence-head-butting goat in these situations.

But then I remembered: my best friend lives in LA! I stepped away from the counter and called him, and he picks up; I tell him the situation, and ask if I could spend a night at his place. Yes. So I go back to the counter, and work with the folks there to book me on the next flight to LA that day, and rebook my transpacific flight for the next day. And just like that, I got to not only see my partner (if a day late), but also got in a nice little surprise catch-up visit with my best friend.

Certainly I was lucky in that my best friend happened to live in the city where I had a layover, but if I had been insistent on knocking down that fence I don't think I would've had the presence of mind to even connect with the fact that he lived there. I'm not sure what kind of more generally applicable lesson to draw out of this, except maybe to be patient with the world (and yourself), which can open you up to finding the smaller victories and upsides. This does require eating some losses (such as losing a day with partner), but it turned out that the corresponding small victory more than made up for it. Hope this helps.
posted by obliterati at 4:40 AM on September 8, 2017

Response by poster: Thank you all, this was great. I'll post a follow up question in a bit. I know there are lots of options in the solution space; but I tend to get fixated on one. How do I keep my mind open to other possibilities? Anyway, I need to think about it some more. Thanks for all the interesting thoughts.
posted by aeighty at 9:33 AM on September 8, 2017

The nature of my job means I catch a lot of problems and inefficiencies in our product, and then need to ask engineers or other teams to fix those problems or inefficiencies. The engineering team strongly prefers that I send them a request that thoroughly describes the problem, and not a request for a specific solution. This has been hugely beneficial for my flexible, lateral, growth-mindset thinking skills for two reasons:

1 - Watching them solve the problem in a way that wasn't what I would have asked for is a great reminder that my proposed solutions aren't always the only or best solutions, and

2 - Having to break the problem down thoroughly enough to describe it well to someone else often helps me see where the solution I already had in mind might not work or be the best one.

So now when I'm worried I'm approaching a problem focused only one one solution, I step back and think about what the problem actually is, and what my desired end result is. There are usually way more potential solutions in my head after that.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:48 PM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli has many examples.
posted by John Cohen at 5:43 PM on September 10, 2017

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