Problem Solving: Lateral Thinking

If you post a 13 minute video on watch screws you had better have a good reason. Chopping this video down to the few seconds of visually arresting tricks would lose the idea, which is to give a real-life example of how the lateral thinking process works.

When I first read about lateral thinking, I made the mistake of dimissing it, because the presentation is invariably bad. They begin by showing you a problem and a wrong way to solve it. Then they skip to the captivating, completely unorthodox solution, which could have come only from an impossible flash of insight. Your instruction is now complete: produce impossible flashes of insight.

You can't teach flashes of insight. You can however teach a strategy that makes it easier to have insights. This is what problem solving pedagogy misses, and what I attempt to do here.

A rough outline of the strategy is as follows:

  1. Start with the naive solution
  2. Try the solution
  3. Recognize when further effort won't save the solution
  4. Look for solutions different from past ones
  5. Pick the most promising
  6. Go to Step 2

The most important parts are Steps 3 and 4. Step 3 means stop trying the exact same thing harder. Step 4 means do something different enough that it isn't the same thing: either a modification or something categorically different—categorically different is the "lateral" part.

The part that I can't directly convey to you, and the reason I regret initially dismissing lateral thinking, is the astonishing effectiveness of this strategy at solving problems, no matter the field. Empirically speaking, there is a high-leverage strategy for your problem, and you can get to it if you're nimble enough.

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