Breaking the Boundaries or Making your Own? — 3

This continuation of my series on problem-solving highlights out-of-the-box ideas and thinking. You may be confused by the random potatoes involved if you haven’t read the introduction to the series so go check it out.

It’s not that I Can’t Think Critically; I just Prefer to Think Laterally…

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Two ways to enhance lateral thinking are to use random or provocative ideas and connect them to the situation at hand in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. You might flip to any word in the dictionary for a random idea or identify a statement that is obviously wrong and find a way to apply it to your problem.

For example, say you wanted to find a solution to minimise the environmental impact of road salts. You could connect this problem to the random word, “table,” and realise that if the water table of the environment was higher than roads, the salts could not dissolve into runoff that would flow into an aquatic ecosystem. Likewise, with the random word, “guarantee,” you might think about the effects of a government policy where home designers had to guarantee that the runoff from salted driveways would be safely collected instead of flowing into storm drains that led to rivers. Comparatively, you could connect the provocative phrase, “the easiest way to finish a test is to white-out the questions,” to the idea. This could lead to the realisation that just as it is easier to white-out questions than solve them, it is easier to eliminate the need for road salts than minimising their environmental impact. Perhaps, if vehicles could drive in icy conditions without problems, road salts wouldn’t be necessary to de-ice roads.

While this problem-solving technique does limit the depth of the ideas that are developed, it quickly yields a broad analysis of the problem at hand in creative ways. This allows for outside-the-box thinking that may not conventionally come out through critical thinking alone. It is significant to note, however, that the two techniques are not completely independent; after discovering a creative idea to solve a problem using lateral thinking, a team would likely continue to develop that idea in more detail using critical thinking. Even the process of lateral thinking itself can contain aspects of other problem-solving techniques. Specifically, the critical process of connecting two seemingly-unrelated ideas can be well-suited for the method of focal objects.

So Pretend you Have a Potato and Way Too Much Time on your Hands…

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

There are 5 main steps in the process:

  1. Identifying the initial idea focused on for improvement. This could include a problem to be solved or an existing product to be improved.
  2. Randomly selecting another idea to connect to the first.
  3. Listing the known characteristics of the two ideas.
  4. Combining the characteristics of the ideas to establish a connection.
  5. Developing and evaluating the connection, until it is realistic/feasible.

To illustrate, say you’re a potato farmer with too many potatoes to sell, wondering what on earth you’re going to do with all those darn potatoes?!?! You might stumble upon ‘dairy’ as the other random idea to connect to potatoes. At this point, you (being quite an astute potato farmer) would obviously realise that you could turn the potatoes into potato starch to make invisible ink for diaries. After all, why should those greedy corn farmers get all the invisible ink profit with their cornstarch?

Then, you would continue to repeat this process to get as many ideas as possible. You might, however, start to see certain patterns emerging in your ideas that lead you to the same applications (writing). Who knew you could use invisible potato ink in so many situations? This is when it is useful to consider pattern-breaking, or deliberately finding connections not related to the repeating theme (writing). For instance, as a potato farmer driven by rigorous exploration, you might decide that you will not find any writing-related connections between potatoes and the random idea, “mining.” From this, you would use your well-trained knowledge of electrical circuitry in potatoes to determine that you could collaborate with the metal mine (conveniently located next door) to create educational potato batteries for young children. The potato would obviously be a splendid electrolyte, with metals like zinc for the anode and metals like copper for the cathode.

If you want to truly get your random creativity flowing to maximise the dreams and potential of your surplus potatoes, however, there is still one last problem-solving technique to give you the edge: trial and error.

I’m Smarter than Edison; I Found 11 000 Ways not to Make a Lightbulb!

Thomas Edison remarked, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” about his lack of success in inventing the light bulb. This type of dedicated mindset reflects the trial and error approach to problem-solving. Somewhat intuitively, this approach involves repeating different attempts at a problem until it is solved or the problem-solver stops trying.

Photo by Jeremy Lapak on Unsplash

The simplest application of this method can seem to be careless with uncoordinated efforts to try things until one works. This is in stark contrast to many of the problem-solving strategies discussed prior, which involve methodological planning. That is not to say this technique cannot be structured, however, as you can carefully choose trials that test the greatest number of possibilities. For example, an ice cream shop wanting to assess how temperature affects its sales could use simple trial and error to record the temperature and number of customers each day. Comparatively, a more structured use of trial and error might mean the business only checks the number of customers when the temperature is 0 °C, 5 °C, 10 °C, and so on. This reduces the number of trials required and gives the business data on a broader variety of temperatures, making the process more efficient.

This would still not be the most effective use of trial and error, however, due to the nature of the problem. Business sales have a number of factors influencing them, but trial and error techniques are best suited for simple problems without any apparent relationships. Perhaps, you know which floor your friend’s apartment is on, but cannot remember the room number. In this case, it could be quicker to simply check the different apartments using trial and error than more structured problem-solving techniques. That is not to say trial and error is used only for simple applications. Notably, antibiotic and materials development often uses structured forms of trial and error to research new pharmaceuticals or polymers. Furthermore, even the intricate process of genetic evolution is based on trial and error.

Side Effects may Include Severe Frustration, Running into Walls, and Achiness

Under certain circumstances, not only will trial and error lead to frustration and a lack of progress while solving a problem, it will literally be impossible to succeed. Namely, certain problems are literally impossible to solve given realistic constraints, especially with theoretical situations like in the sciences. In this case, trial and error will lead to no results as none of the attempts are ever going to succeed, resulting only in wasted effort. In such scenarios, techniques like morphological analysis and proofs can be used to analyse the number of solutions, if any, for a problem before starting the trial and error process.

Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

Additionally, there are also inherent flaws in trial and error that limit its usefulness like:

  • It does not explain why a solution works. It can only test that it does.
  • It is hard to generalise the solutions of a specific problem to other problems like it.
  • A solution found is not necessarily the most efficient. There may be better ones still.

That being said, trial and error can be quick and effective when there is little knowledge about the complexities of a problem and you have a feasible strategy to minimise the number of necessary tests.

Key Takeaways

  • Lateral thinking spurs creativity when critical thinking doesn’t work;
  • Lateral thinking covers many ideas in less detail than critical thinking;
  • The method of focal objects integrates randomness in lateral thinking;
  • And Trial and error is random, but ineffective at solving complex problems.

With this increased toolkit of problem-solving mindsets, the next part of this series considers the key barriers to overcome when approaching a problem.



Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin:

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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: