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?