Wednesday, November 2

Unconscious Creativity

I shared an interesting chat with an old friend in the pub recently.  This is something I do far too little of these days, and that's my fault more than anyone else's.

Anyway, it turns out he's discovered this blog, started keeping tabs on my innermost reflections, and even started asking my wife about my schedule if posts don't appear routinely on a Friday!

Aside from this all being quite unsettling, it prompted an interesting beer-fuelled discussion.  And one which I may need you, the reader, to arbitrate upon ...

My friend's contention was that software developers (a job we've both done in past lives) are actually quite creative in their problem-solving, despite their reputation as analytical thinkers.  The example he gave was one where it was necessary to overcome a network security limitation, and the ultimate solution involved introducing layers of abstraction which weren't themselves constrained in the same as the elementary components.

(Stick with me.  It's layman’s language for the rest of this post.)

I was forced to concede that, yes, this was an example of lateral thinking.  And that created a dilemma for me:  this was precisely the kind of thing I was very good at back in my coding days, but I've been arguing all this time that I had no skill in creative thinking back then.

So what's going on here?  After a bit of head-scratching, I think I have it ...

The software developer who arrived at this solution hit upon a good alternative, which circumnavigated the immediate obstacles.  But he did so using established pathways in the brain.  He was doubtless well-trained, and used intra-domain knowledge to solve the problem.

That's a good thing when the problem is well-defined, and we know what “good” looks like. 

In this example the problem could be considered closed once two computers successfully exchanged messages.  Without devaluing his skills for a moment, a great many similarly-qualified people could have hit upon the same solution.

But what if the ideal solution is not clear, and we’re seeking many and varied alternatives? 
What if there's no clearly articulated problem at all, and our challenge is instead to carve-out new opportunities?  Or what if we’re looking for a rather unique way forward: one which couldn’t be duplicated by competing organisations?

This is where I’d draw a useful distinction between 'lateral thinking' (in the popular usage of the term) and ’creative thinking’.  When faced with a brick wall, the analyst tries to break through it; the lateral thinker tries to go around it; but the creative thinker can also countenance flying over it, spiriting it away with sorcery, playing musical chairs with it, crawling underneath it, or shrinking down to microscopic size and squeezing through cracks in the mortar.  These alternative ideas emerge from employing external knowledge from foreign domains.

If only I'd thought of all that in the pub.   Maybe next time!

What do you think?  Do I draw a valid distinction here?


  1. Hi Jeremy,

    You draw an interesting distinction between lateral and creative thinking but I'm not sure I totally agree.

    In Paul Sloane's book, How to be a Brilliant Thinker: Exercise Your Mind & Find Creative Solutions, he describes lateral thinking

    "Lateral thinking is a phrase coined by Dr. Edward de Bono as a counterpoint to conventional or vertical thinking. In contentional thinking, we go forward in a predictable, direct fashion. Lateral thinking involves coming at the problem from new directions - literally, from the side."

    So I guess the question is, did the solution to the software problem require predictable, direct approaches?

    You make the point that many software developers could have developed a solution for teh problem encountered using "using established pathways in the brain". For me an established pathway is vertical thinking. at least that's my interpretation of De Bono's work.

    However if you had stated that the software developer had resolved the problem using an established process that led him to look at the problem in new ways then I would say this is lateral thinking. De Bono describes lateral thinking as a process and not necessarily a 'gift'. So if many software developers have built in a process naturally to find alternative pathways that they did not previously have in their minds then they are excellent examples of lateral thinkers.

    Personally I wouldn't draw the distinction between lateral and creative thinking as you have. For me they lateral thinking is inherently creative. In your example your domain is narrow and the level of creativity maybe limited but still creative. The soultion you say involved "introducing layers of abstraction which weren't themselves constrained in the same as the elementary components" - this does not sound like an alanyst trying to 'break through' a brick wall as you state toward the end of your article. Rather it sounds like the software designer ignored the wall and built several steps to help him securely scale it - lateral and rather creative thinking in my book.

    Feel free to counter my interpretation of your words....

    Lateral thinking is not using the traditional pathways and using alternative paths ' from the side'.

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