Think laterally, act vertically: Lessons at TEDMED

Margaret Coughlin is a Senior Vice President and the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Here at the TEDMED conference, it’s all about horizontal or lateral thinking – coming at problems from new directions, without regard to conventional boundaries. I like the thoughts of Edward DeBono (not a TEDMED speaker), who coined the term “lateral thinking” in 1967:

Some people are unhappy about lateral thinking because they feel it threatens the validity of vertical thinking. This is not so at all. The two processes are complementary, not antagonistic. Lateral thinking enhances the effectiveness of vertical thinking by offering it more to select from. Vertical thinking multiplies the effectiveness of lateral thinking by making good use of the ideas generated.

Lateral thinking is, in a way, an antidote to the way we’re all taught—vertically and specifically. Our education systems seem to be getting more vertical – more concerned with meeting prescribed benchmarks, and, in so doing, discarding the creativity and imagination of learning that is critical to real innovation and real forward movement. As for medical education, radiation oncologist and TEDMED speaker Jacob Scott said it has replaced creativity in the brain with a warehouse.

Vertical specialization is important, but without the connections of lateral thinking, where will the real discoveries come?  TEDMED speaker David Icke, CEO of the advanced materials company mc10, envisions combining the computational power of a silicone chip with catheter-centered therapies from cardiology with the communications technology of a smartphone, producing an implanted chip in the heart that would monitor the success of therapies, exercise and more. This is a real possibility in the near-ish term.

Lateral thinking is frequently thought of a problem-solving technique — and that is a spectacular application. But lateral thought is far more interesting in identifying the problems.  Starting with lateral thinking, by definition, generates a broader set of possibilities that can then be “verticalized” for real application.

Our thought patterns can influence the quality of our decisions – in medicine, business and beyond. Happily, lateral thinking can be learned. For fun, take the classic lateral thinking test below and see how you do!

  1. A man lives on the top floor of a very tall building. Every day, he gets the elevator down to the ground floor to leave the building to go to work. Upon returning from work though, he can only travel half way up in the lift and has to walk the rest of the way unless it’s raining! Why?
  2. A man and his son are in a car accident. The father dies on the scene, but the child is rushed to the hospital. When he arrives the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son! ” How can this be?
  3. A man is wearing black. Black shoes, socks, trousers, coat, gloves and ski mask. He is walking down a back street with all the street lamps off. A black car is coming towards him with its light off but somehow manages to stop in time. How did the driver see the man?
  4. One day Kerry celebrated her birthday. Two days later her older twin brother, Terry, celebrated his birthday. How?
  5. Why is it better to have round manhole covers than square ones?
  6. A man went to a party and drank some of the punch. He then left early. Everyone else at the party who drank the punch subsequently died of poisoning. Why did the man not die?
  7. A man died and went to Heaven. There were thousands of other people there. They were all naked and all looked as they did at the age of 21. He looked around to see if there was anyone he recognized. He saw a couple and he knew immediately that they were Adam and Eve. How did he know?
  8. A woman had two sons who were born on the same hour of the same day of the same year. But they were not twins. How could this be so?
  9. A man walks into a bar and asks the barman for a glass of water. The barman pulls out a gun and points it at the man. The man says “Thank you,” and walks out.
  10. A murderer is condemned to death. He has to choose between three rooms. The first is full of raging fires, the second is full of assassins with loaded guns, and the third is full of lions that haven’t eaten in 3 years. Which room is safest for him?
  11. A woman shoots her husband. Then she holds him under water for over 5 minutes. Finally, she hangs him. But 5 minutes later they both go out together and enjoy a wonderful dinner together. How can this be?
  12. There are two plastic jugs filled with water. How could you put all of this water into a barrel, without using the jugs or any dividers, and still tell which water came from which jug?.
  13. What is black when you buy it, red when you use it, and gray when you throw it away?
  14. Can you name three consecutive days without using the words Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday?

(Solutions, and more lateral thinking exercises, can be found here and elsewhere.)