Leader Volume 7, Number 12
Can Be Major Barriers
Sloane (residing in Camberley, England) is Vice President
International for MathSoft Inc.
He has authored eight books on lateral thinking and lateral
thinking puzzles, and he speaks on the use of lateral thinking in
business. His home page is dspace.dial.pipex.com/sloane.
Adapted from Test your Lateral Thinking IQ (Sterling Publishing, New York, 1994).
Baggage Inhibits Bold Solutions
There’s an old
saying, “To assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.”
In approaching problems, in business and other walks of
life, we tend to make too many assumptions.
We assume that the situation we face is like others we’ve
experienced before. We take a shortcut to a conventional solution
and we blind ourselves to all sorts of more creative
more experienced we are, the more prone we are to rely on
assumptions based on prior knowledge, which may now be outdated.
It is said that in the mind of the beginner there are many
options, but in the mind of the expert there are only a few. Sometimes it’s best to think like a beginner.
By deliberately ridding ourselves of accumulated baggage
and debilitating assumptions we can come at the problem from new
directions and achieve breakthrough solutions.
- Mental Shortcuts
mental shortcuts which save us time and effort.
If on a walk in the woods we saw a brightly colored snake,
we would assume it was poisonous and avoid it.
It may or may not be poisonous but our assumption places us
in a least-risk situation.
are many occasions when the natural assumption that things will
proceed the conventional, proven way is dangerous.
In the 1930s, the British and French military High Commands
assumed that any new war with Germany would be like the First
World War but fought with more powerful weapons.
They therefore prepared their defenses against an assumed
German frontal attack by building massive fortifications, the
Maginot Line, along the Franco-German border.
This solution proved completely inadequate.
The German High Command redefined the basis of modern
introduced the new concept of blitzkrieg. Using fast-moving armored divisions and some lateral
thinking, they did the unthinkable and swept through neutral
Holland and Belgium into an undefended section of France.
The magnificent and expensive Maginot Line was bypassed and
France was defeated.
inventor of radiotelegraphy, faced many cynics and doubters as he
developed the theory and practice of radio transmission.
In 1901 he proposed to test sending radio signals across
the Atlantic. The
experts all scoffed at the idea.
Because radio waves travelled in straight lines they
assumed that radio signals could not go around a curved surface
like the earth. Experience
and logic supported that assumption, but Marconi dramatically
proved it wrong when he successfully transmitted a signal from
England to Canada. Unknown
to all the experts there was an electrically charged band, the
ionosphere, which reflected the radio beams back to earth.
We all suffer
from the mental restrictions of too many assumptions.
We may laugh when we hear the joke about the alien who came
to earth, went up to a gas pump and said “Remove your finger
from your ear and take me to your leader!”
But what assumptions would we
make on seeing a new creature?
When the North American Indians first saw a man riding a
horse they assumed that this was some new animal with two heads,
two arms and four legs.
Let’s go back
to the snake which we always assume to be dangerous.
It was recently reported that a Brazilian car thief used an
ingenious method to steal cars.
He would slip a brightly-colored, but harmless, snake
through the open window of any suitable car which stopped at a set
of traffic lights. Invariably
the terrified driver would leap out of the car to avoid the
assumed threat. The
thief then calmly got into the driver’s seat and drove off.
He exploited the fact that people would assume that an
unfamiliar-looking snake is poisonous.
There’s an old
riddle, “A blind beggar had a brother who died.
What relation was the blind beggar to the brother who
If you ask ten
people this question they will most likely give the same answer:
brother. But that’s
not the answer. The
blind beggar was the sister
of her brother who died. This
puzzle, like many others, works because the listener or reader
invariably makes a false assumption; that a blind beggar must be a
assumptions is a natural, but lazy, habit.
We assume that a new situation is similar to previously
experienced situations. This
saves us time--we don’t check out all the details surrounding
the situation, but immediately jump in with an answer.
Although this process will sometimes help speed things up,
it will inevitably screen us from other possibilities and options.
Often we will leap to the wrong conclusion and miss the
chance to make a better decision.
Once we embark on
a route, based on a simple misunderstanding of an ambiguity,
it’s very difficult to solve the problem.
For example, if we assume that the blind beggar is a man.
You have exactly $101 in your pocket.
You have just two notes and no change.
One of the notes is not a $1 bill.
What are they? Most people struggle with this little conundrum because they
are misled by an ambiguity in the wording.
One of the notes is not a $1 bill.
It is a $100 bill. So
the solution is the simple one of a $1 bill and a $100 bill.
in all walks of life and in all communications.
Whenever someone speaks, we make all sorts of assumptions
about his or her meanings. It’s
easy to misinterpret any ambiguous statements to fit our own
pre-conditioned views. Consequently
we often jump to entirely wrong conclusions because our
assumptions were erroneous. Before making a serious judgment about a person or decision,
we should check out the assumptions on which we have based our
sometimes find that the inherent ambiguities in the case have
Can Incorrectly Frame the Problem
The way we define
a problem can contain an assumption which makes the problem harder to solve. In
medieval times, astronomy was defined as the study of how the
heavenly bodies moved around the earth.
The implicit assumption was that the earth was the center.
When Copernicus tried putting the Sun at the center of the
solar system he found that the movements of the planets could be
much more easily explained.
Often in business
we ask a very narrow question which contains an assumption. For example, “How can we get costs back on plan?”
This assumes that the plan was right in the first place.
A better question might be, “How can we minimize our
costs over the next reporting period; regardless of the plan we
put together six months ago?”
experienced we are, the greater the danger that we’ll take
mental shortcuts and jump to conclusions, thereby missing
innovative alternatives. Things change so fast now that some of our experiences may be
misleading us. It’s
best to recognize that we’re bringing our assumptions to the
decision-making process and to act accordingly.
Often the objections we raise to other people’s ideas are
based on our pre-conceptions and assumptions.
We can find ourselves using old baggage as objections to
crush creative new ideas.
When tackling the
next batch of problems, be sure to carefully check out all the
assumptions that you make. Test
your assumptions by asking simple, fundamental questions. Restate
the problem in different ways and approach it from new
Once you drop
your pre-conceived assumptions you’re much more likely to find