Paul Sloane works with companies to improve their own lateral thinking and innovation, using techniques that unlock creativity from teams who may not have shown any beforehand – here’s how he fires up the ideas engine…
RISING Your book is all about lateral thinking – why do we need to look at problems sideways, at work?
PAUL SLOANE, AUTHOR ‘Coming at a problem, deliberately, from different directions, and using techniques which will displace you out of your starting point, is helpful in all walks of life, including business. You have to use techniques to force you out of the well-trodden path that you're used to, because we all live lives according to a set of rules and assumptions, and mindsets, which we develop over a long period, and we're so used to them we don't notice them anymore. Suddenly, you realise that it was completely wrong and that what you always assumed was true, isn't true anymore.’
‘It's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble, it's what we think we know for sure’
RISING Is there a specific example of this in the business world?
PS ‘Uber is an entirely new paradigm for transport. Travis Kalanick was stuck in Paris in 2009 and he couldn't get a taxi, and most people would say: “Yes, if there's a shortage of taxis you get the metro, you walk, you get the bus, or you wait until a taxi comes along. Those are the options. That's the way life works.” But he asked, what about all the unused capacity of all the drivers in Paris who'd be quite happy to give me a lift for a small payment? He challenged the thinking, and came up with an entirely new way to do things. Mark Twain said: “It's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble, it's what we think we know for sure.”’
RISING We know that AI and automation are set to hollow out a lot of even professional roles, as well as tasks that companies currently do – how can we adapt?
PS ‘Don't be in denial. Just because you're in a well-paid job and you've got expertise, don't assume that you're safe. The best assumption to make is that the job you're in is going to disappear within two or three years, so if you make that assumption and you prepare for it, and you ask: “What am I good at? What am I really good at? What do I really enjoy doing? Is there an opportunity for me to do that in some cool and clever way? Is there an opportunity for me to do it in a new way? Could I start my own business?.” The answer to that question is always yes.’
RISING What is it that AI isn’t going to be able to do in the future?
PS ‘The one thing computers can't do is they can't ask questions. They can't create, in the sense of being purely creative, and in terms of conceiving entirely new business models, in terms of really thinking of new ways to do things; that's not what they're good at. What they're good at is doing established things really, really well and doing them better and better and improving efficiency, and that's good and we need that, so where can you apply your creativity? We need to develop creative thinking skills and we need to develop lateral thinking skills.’
RISING But a lot of companies, even some startups have entrenched ways of doing things and unwritten rules – how do you break those down as a leader?
PS ‘What you need in an organisation is loyal rebels. You want people who believe in the goals of the organisation, but are dissatisfied with the way things are being done, and they're curious about new ways to do things, and they're hungry to try new things. Those are the kind of people you want to encourage and build and give resources to. Most organisations have some of them, and the leader has to find them and create a culture and environment where they can flourish.’
‘The innovative leader is endlessly curious and endlessly dissatisfied’
RISING What does an innovative leader look like?
PS ‘The innovative leader is endlessly curious and endlessly dissatisfied, and they know that the current state of affairs is only temporary – it's going to be replaced by something better sooner or later. Either you're going to do it, or one of your competitors is going to do it, so they're always trying new things and they're quite comfortable with failing and trying things that don't work, because they know that's a route to success.’
RISING But as the leader you have to be able to pull back a bit to allow your team to be creative?
PS ‘Yes, so it's really important for the leader to be humble enough to admit they don't have the best ideas. It's a concept of a servant leader. Somebody who's leading a great team, but they're not actually on the pitch – it’s the Jurgen Klopp-type approach. You choose the best team and then you send them out there, and off they go and they perform for you, but you're not out there taking the penalties. You can't, so that's really important.’
RISING What about the element of risk – innovation and change always risk failure so how do you justify it?
PS ‘You have to create a sense of urgency. You have to say, “We are at risk”, and when people say, “Why are you taking these risks? Why are you trying these new things? Why are you wasting money on new initiatives?” you have to say: “Well, standing still is a risk. Doing nothing's a risk. We've got to keep trying new things. We've got to find better ways to provide the goods and services that our customers want. Our customers are changing – they will de-camp, they will go elsewhere.” For instance Coca-Cola launched new Coke, put enormous resource into it and it was a huge flop, despite all the testing – but it didn't hurt them that much in the end. They recovered. You could say: “Failure is an opportunity to try again, only more intelligently.”’
RISING OK, say you’ve established the right conditions for creative thinking – what’s next?
PS ‘It's no good having a big brainstorm meeting and then doing nothing – that’s worse than not having the meeting in the first place, because it actually demotivates people. If you can say: “We had a meeting two months ago and we came up with 17 ideas. We tried these six. This one failed, this one failed, this one is ongoing, this one is struggling, but these two are really working well.” That's what people want. What you need is creativity, but the creativity has to turn into innovation. It has to turn into real prototypes, real experiments, real models that you try in the marketplace.’
RISING What about practical steps you can take to unlock innovation?
PS ‘A really good thing to do is for the leader to go round and ask bright people: “What's stopping innovation? Did you have any good ideas last year? What happened to them?” Find out what's blocking. Find out what's frustrating them and start eliminating some of those frustrations, and you'll see move innovations flow through.’
RISING What about lateral thinking itself – have you come across any good ways to unlock that creativity without going head-on into it?
PS ’Yes, there are a lot of advanced brainstorming techniques; using random stimuli like words; or pictures to stimulate crazy ideas. Or similes, where you say, “What’s this problem like in another walk of life? What would they do if they had this problem in warfare, or medicine, or music?” There are all sorts of techniques I use in my workshops, to get people thinking laterally. I deliberately get them to think of bizarre, ridiculous ideas first. Like instead of solving the problem, come up with crazy ways to make the problem much, much worse. Then you ask: “What's the opposite of that?” Things to force people out of their current position, get them laughing, get them deliberately being stupid, and therefore being more creative.’
WHAT NEXT? Got a business problem with a possible, but impractical answer? Try listing down three assumptions you’ve made about why it’s not going to work – then work out ways to challenge them. You might be surprised by the ideas that come out of it…