3 top tips for lateral thinking (or 1, depending on how you look at it)

Want to think outside the box? Get creative with your inner child, says Exposure Digital's Pete Jackson.

by Pete Jackson
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2016

Picture your typical working day, the majority of which is most likely spent sitting at your desk.

Now picture what value you aim to bring to your business. This is likely to be rooted in solving problems, be they logistical, financial, creative or employee related.

You might not know it, but there is a link between your typical working day and your ability to problem solve. And that link is strongly mediated by divergent (or lateral) thinking.

Divergent thinking is the lifeblood of business. It breeds the light bulb moments that revolutionise a project, unlock crucial consumer insight, or deliver the fundamental changes your business needs to succeed.

Given its importance, we decided to learn from the world's best divergent thinkers: children.

When researcher George Land studied divergent thinking in 1968 with different age groups, the results were astounding: 

  • 5 year olds: 98% considered 'geniuses' at divergent thinking
  • 10 year olds: 30% 
  • 15 year olds: 12% 
  • Adults: just 2% 

Between the age of five and adulthood, the percentage of people considered to be creative geniuses plummets by 96%. How could this happen?

We went back to school to find out, spending a week testing the creativity of seven year old pupils at Hollymount School, located in the London Borough of Merton.

Before testing their advertising skills, we showed them some classic adverts including SONY Bravia 'Balls' (the coloured balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco). A sparky little chap from Class 3K remarked, "Maybe SONY is asking us to be more colourful people?"

This moment, and countless others, had us dazzled by their ability to see things in delightfully lateral ways.

We admired the way they attacked the subsequent creative challenge (to advertise Hollymount School), the incredible breadth of ideas they conceived, and their infectious enthusiasm and energy. We discovered a myriad of characteristics and behaviours we as adults could benefit from re-learning.

The most powerful insight was this: seven year olds don't ever sit still. They’re constantly moving, running and climbing – which, whilst an exhausting experience for parents and teachers alike, hugely benefits them when attacking creative tasks. The take out? Movement is the key to reconnecting with our divergent genius.

Recent neuroscience research agrees. Fresh studies out of Stanford University are the first to implicate the cerebellum in creative thinking – the bulb of brain matter at the back of your skull that is typically linked to motor function.

Yet as usual, new science is old knowledge. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Ludwig Van Beethoven conceived of some of man's greatest creative and scientific breakthroughs whilst walking or cycling. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are both firm believers in the power of walking to aid problem-solving, as was the late Steve Jobs.

Divergent thinking isn’t just limited to the creative industries, it’s applicable to any person, in any department, of any business.

So if movement unlocks divergent thinking, why are we always sitting down? This needs to change.

Incorporating movement into your typical work day doesn’t have to be strenuous. Here are three simple recommendations to stay active and thus stay creative:  

1. Get away from your desk

When we get stuck on something, it’s easy to freeze. We sit there, focusing on the problem and hoping the answer will magically appear to us. This can trap us in vertical thinking (falling back on well-trodden solutions). Instead try stepping away from your desk, go for a walk, and get moving. It's hard fighting the feeling that leaving the office is 'skiving'. It's not. It's you treating your problem with the respect it deserves. 

2. Ditch the seated ‘brainstorm’ 

The divergent thinking that will take your business to new heights isn’t going to happen when everyone’s sat, slumped in their chairs in a meeting room. Take the group for a walk (see above), or have the session standing up whilst switching positions every few minutes. You might feel slightly childish doing this. You would be correct. That is the point.

3. Don’t forget to exercise 

You don't need me to tell you regular exercise is essential for taking care of your body and sharpening your mind. But exercise doesn’t just bring health benefits – it brings business benefits. Brilliant ideas come closer to the tip of consciousness, and critical solutions more readily appear when your heart rate is rattling along. And if that isn’t motivation to go to the gym, I don’t know what is.

Pete Jackson is strategy director and a psychologist in training at creative agency Exposure Digital.


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