Lateral Thinking: Let the Fool in

the Fool - Tarot

A few years ago I was talking to a friend who asked me to explain why I held one of my previous employers in such high regard. It surprised me that I was unable to answer -- although I knew the experience, I didn't know the words.


About a year after that I was looking for guidance on creativity when I happened across the book Lateral Thinking: a Textbook of Creativity by Edward de Bono. I remembered my CEO from that time used to say "think laterally" occasionally, so I bought it based on that -- as it transpires, it represents one of the most well respected strategies for effective creativity and innovation.

Reading the book was like a breath of fresh air. It contained so much that I'd tried to articulate over the years and I had struggled to get much further than abstract ideas. Initially, the most profound thing was that it seemed to answer my friends question completely. If he asked again today "what was so special about that business?" I could explain to him how it presented a very strong likeness to the day-to-day experiences within that business - and how it was a catalyst leading to much more profound insights into employee engagement and business culture.

Beginners' Mind

In light of the ideas expressed in that book: This week, I have been thinking about how input from inexperienced people is sometimes habitually undervalued. But in consideration of the principles of Lateral Thinking, getting input from absolute beginners is valuable because they view the subject with an unconditioned mind -- and, after-all, considering things from many different angles is what the best, most pragmatic and most forward-thinking products and services are all about. With that in mind it becomes obvious that not equally valuing the potential of beginners' opinions would be missing a trick:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." — Shunryu Suzuki

And that's not all we'd be missing -- Shunryu Suzuki has something much more valuable to share:

"Our tendency is to be interested in something that is growing in the garden, not in the bare soil itself. But if you want to have a good harvest, the most important thing is to make the soil rich and cultivate it well."

Involving fresh minds in business-decisions, creativity and problem solving has the added benefit that those minds are made to feel valued and don't become demotivated or complacent. It also cultivates a deeper connection to the business' values, goals and vision within them -- i.e. a much more thorough, tangible and accessible understanding of the business in general. So, if we want to begin to develop profound business-acumen within the workforce -- and to capitalise on the kind of potentials we're contemplating -- we can involve them in these kinds of activities effectively by incorporating lateral and divergent thinking type activities.

Getting Jiggy With It

To get a basic sense of that that means, here are some great words from Sam Bacharach, director of the Cornell Institute for Workplace Studies:

"some pretty outrageous stuff to start with, or what we've often called divergent thinking. Once you've taken the divergent, or outrageous, extreme - you want to be able to pull them back in - you want to connect the dots, you want to get them to, really, begin to understand what products [what ideas] can move forwards".

This is one way in which we can develop deep insight, understanding, meaning and value in our teams -- also increasing the potential for engagement both internally and externally. Taking things to extremes, like this, is especially helpful for our less experienced team-members -- it's where the most valuable and memorable learning occurs.

Engaging the Fool

While I was contemplating writing this article, I decided to search for an anecdote to support the idea of including beginners in innovation and business decisions etc., I exaggerated the idea and started to think about the medieval Jesters, acting the fool -- and who had special privileges in being able to speak incredibly frankly to, even mock, the monarch -- but the Jester was considered to be very learned. So I wondered, "perhaps there's a fool in Plato's book the Republic?", when, during a Googling session, I came across a Tarot card called 'the Fool' -- so I looked up the symbolism on Wikipedia, which says:

the Fool - Tarot

"the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool's wisdom and exuberance, holy madness or 'crazy wisdom'."

The Fool in Tarot doesn't necessarily have the same negative connotations we associate with the word -- it can represent someone with an unconditioned mind, like a young person, or beginner. So I smiled when I read it because I realised the words perfectly articulate the idea that these people have something quite different, and equally as valuable to offer.

That being said: the Tarot does have varying interpretations - and some people believe the Fool will momentarily step off the edge of a cliff... So, let's look at the negative for a moment.

In business, employees are sometimes told not to do things - there may be a feeling that certain behaviours are inappropriate. Sometimes these rules are offered with shallow reasoning, or no reason at all. This can lead to all sorts of problems.

If we engage more thoroughly and explain both sides of the equation -- also allowing people to express themselves freely -- working together to develop true understanding. If we engage in the divergent thinking activities that we thought about earlier, where we exaggerate and re-connect the dots of formalised understanding. We can develop a quality of depth together that demonstrates to our business associates, partners and customers that we really know what we're doing.

Usually, in Tarot, the Fool is said to be at the start of a great journey or adventure: Deepening our understanding in this way will provide us with the insight we need to embark upon our adventure with confidence and authenticity.

Perhaps the anecdote of the Fool -- who embodies the complete potential to internalise your vision and values -- will be of use to you? My experience is that the lateral/divergent thinking environment is an engaging, happy, co-operative, interpersonally-binding, creative and truly effective business.

"Think laterally" — Geoff Herrington 1947-2005

If you have any questions, comments, insights, or anything else that you'd like to share with me - please do get in touch. You can contact me by email, or use the comments box below to leave your thoughts; or to start a converstaion.

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