Elon Musk and Steve Jobs Embraced Lateral Thinking. Here's Why It Beats Best Practices Every Time.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021 | Entrepreneur


Ask just about any leader to offer you a set of best practices they use in their company and they probably can do it. The trouble is, best practices tend to fit the often-quoted definition of insanity — you want innovation, but you just keep doing the same thing over and over based on your set of standards, all while expecting a different result. If you really want to create something unique, lateral thinking is a far better bet.

What Is Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking simply means finding solutions with unconventional logic or reasoning that might not be easy to see initially. It’s what people mean when they say they want you to think “out of the box” and it’s invaluable. It can encourage you to take needed risks, embrace change and improve the culture of your organization.

Lateral Thinking at Work

My company is a good example of how lateral thinking can boost a business in the real world. Our team decided together that we were going to move away from the traditional organizational structure (i.e., distinct marketing, sales, development, etc.). The alternative was to organize everything around different channels or streams of business. We broke apart what normally gets centralized and put everybody in new business units or product lines.

Decentralizing like this in favor of business streams did have a financial cost. In fact, it was hard to get our board to go along with the idea initially, because doing so required us to duplicate some resources. 

But at the end of the day, by focusing so well on the individual lines, everybody worked much more collaboratively. The culture shifted and performance got better. And our top-line growth accelerated beyond what we would have been able to accomplish in a traditional setup.

Related: It's Time to Disrupt Yourself

No, the risk wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms at first. But because we took that risk, we came out ahead. In the same way, if you want to make sure that your own business doesn’t fizzle out or become irrelevant, then you have to stop running the same old playbook. By being willing to embrace and promote change, you’ll naturally inspire the kind of lateral thinking that’s at the heart of innovation.

Learning How to Break the Mold

Lateral thinking, like other skills, is something you can learn over time. And one big key to doing this is to just try to observe well and be more aware. You won’t see opportunities, after all, unless you look at all the different aspects of your industry or life and see what you can apply in totally different domains. You can probably take a lot of what you do in business and paste it into your personal life, for example. But it’s a soft skill that ties back to empathy and the ability to set your biases aside. For example, kids often think laterally with ease, because they don’t have as much experience or as many rules dictating what “should” be.

Your observation and awareness need to continue even after you’ve started to make changes. You might find that risks crash and burn. It’s OK if it doesn’t always pan out to be great. In those cases, always pivot. In other cases, you might look and get the sense that what you’re doing actually is working. That’s where you double down. But you have to be willing to take those initial risks and be willing to change.

Related: 5 Mental Health Powers Every Entrepreneur Can Develop

To be clear, lateral thinking doesn’t have to mean you have to go all-in right off the bat. That can be too scary and translate to a lot of pushback from your team. Don’t bet the farm on one big change and hope it works out. Instead, experiment constantly on a small scale. Do frequent, small changes that aren’t as risky and see if those can be successful. Get a lot of big insight from those small shifts. Then, if your observations show that there’s a tremendous opportunity, you can go after it on a large scale and have the best chance of having the change be successful.

Lateral Thinking Defines Today’s Leaders — and You Can Be One of Them

Most of the people that professionals tend to idolize — i.e., Elon Musk, Steve Jobs — make lateral thinking their calling card. They’re incredibly good at questioning systems or ways of doing, and they’re constantly tossing best practices into the trash can to avoid complacency. You can learn to think the way they do. It simply requires an attitude that’s accepting of flexibility. Question everything, observe and try out what you can bit by bit. Growth, both personal and professional, will follow.

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