Guest Paul Sloane is the author of Lateral Thinking For Every Day: Extraordinary solutions to ordinary problems, this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection. Paul shares practical ways for marketing professionals to harness lateral thinking, explaining techniques for generating fresh, unexpected ideas and tackling problems more creatively. ICF listeners can claim a 25 percent discount on Lateral Thinking For Every Day at KoganPage.com by using the promo code BIGEYE25 at checkout.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Paul Sloane: We see time and time again, people who break the rules can get things done and achieve things that the people who conform to the rules don’t.
Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. In previous episodes of IN CLEAR FOCUS, we’ve discussed how artificial intelligence and machine learning tools can augment human creativity. While AI and tools like ChatGPT can process huge amounts of data, they don’t yet yield true creative insight. For the time being, at least, humans are superior creative thinkers. This month’s Bigeye Book Club selection is entitled Lateral Thinking for Every Day: Extraordinary solutions to ordinary problems. It explains how readers can benefit from a lateral approach to problem-solving. With inspiring examples drawn from music, business, art, and crime, the book is a collection of tips, techniques, and puzzles that can help anyone find solutions to creative challenges. The book’s author is Paul Sloane, a recognized authority on innovation and creative thinking. Paul regularly delivers keynote speeches and facilitates workshops for leading corporations around the world. He’s also the author of 20 books. These include the best sellers, How to Be a Brilliant Thinker, The Innovative Leader, The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, and A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, all published by Kogan Page. To talk about his latest book and how lateral thinking can be applied to marketing and advertising, Paul is joining us today from his office in Camberley, in the county of Surrey, England. Paul, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Paul Sloane: Great to be with you Adrian.
Adrian Tennant: Paul, first of all, could you tell us a little about your career and what led you to focus on innovation and creativity?
Paul Sloane: So I trained in engineering. I studied engineering at Cambridge University. I worked for IBM for a while in manufacturing. Then I transferred into sales. I went through sales training. And I had a successful sales career, selling System 34s and System 38s way back in the day. I learned a lot about business from meeting small business owners and trying to help them with their problems through computers. I left IBM and became a marketing director for a software company, Ashton-Tate, who did dBASE™ and framework and MultiMate in the 1980s. I was promoted to Managing Director, Northern European Managing Director for them, and ran their operations over here. I then became CEO of a mathematical software company, and then for about the last 20 years, I’ve been running my own business helping organizations improve lateral thinking and innovation. And what got me into it was, funnily enough, I collected puzzles. I love lateral thinking puzzles. They’re all strange situations where you get a little bit of information, and you have to try and solve the problem. And you figure out what’s going on and the tools you use to solve those problems, I thought, “Can you use those same tools in business to solve business problems?” And I developed a workshop and approach on that, and I wrote a book on it: The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, and it’s all gone from there.
Adrian Tennant: Well, for the Bigeye Book Club this month, we selected your newest book, Lateral Thinking for Every Day, which was just published. What prompted you to write this book?
Paul Sloane: Well, as you may detect when you read the book, it is based on a collection of blogs that I wrote with some additional material. I developed a lot of the blogs and added material, but I’ve been a prolific blogger, and I’m on social media. I’ve got 41,000 followers on Twitter – I tweet a lot. I’m on LinkedIn, and I’ve got 8,000 first-level connections on LinkedIn. So I’m quite active on social media. And I promote a lot of ideas and discussions on lateral thinking. I’ve got my own group on LinkedIn called Lateral Thinking in Business, so I get a lot of ideas from there. And I decided to put them all together in something that was up to date and conveyed a lot of the up-to-date thinking on lateral thinking, a lot of examples and stories, but also techniques and methods that you can use at work and at home and in your everyday life to approach problems in fresh and better ways.
Adrian Tennant: So Paul, how do you define lateral thinking?
Paul Sloane: I define lateral thinking as coming at the problem from the side, from a fresh direction. We think about problems in the way that we’ve been trained to think about them in a sort of straight-on, direct, almost vertical thinking where we build block-on-block in a sensible, logical way. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you need to rethink entirely, approach the problem from a different direction, and then you’ll come up with a creative, better way to do things. Doesn’t always work, but often it does. But you need some help. You need some help to displace yourself out of your comfort zone, out of your normal way of thinking. And that’s what a lot of the techniques in this book do.
Adrian Tennant: In your book, you describe four aspects of lateral thinking. Can you explain what they are?
Paul Sloane: Well I quote Edward de Bono. And Edward de Bono was the great guru of lateral thinking. He wrote a lot of books on lateral thinking. He does have some good ideas, and I quoted his definition of elements of lateral thinking. And in the book, which I’ll read from now, what he said was: “… and the four main aspects of lateral thinking are: the recognition of dominant, polarizing ideas, (big assumptions); the search for different ways of looking at things, (different perspectives, different ways of approach); a relaxation of the rigid control of vertical thinking, or the disciplines that we use, (you have to loosen); and the use of chance, the use of random inputs.” So those were the four that he used and I certainly developed those ideas in the book.
Adrian Tennant: In Lateral Thinking for Every Day, you urge readers to fight the menace of groupthink. So Paul, what is groupthink and why do brand marketers and creative professionals need to fight it?
Paul Sloane: Well, it’s a well-researched phenomenon that people in a group will often think in a very similar way. They’ll support each other and be aligned and not discuss things or be contentious because they want to be supportive. If you are a junior person in a meeting and there are a lot of senior people there, you don’t want to look like an idiot. You don’t want to be criticized by powerful voices in the room. You’ll go along with what they say, even if you can see what you think is an obvious flaw in the proposal, you’ll go along with that. And groupthink is very dangerous because if you’re heading in the wrong direction, there’s nothing to stop you carry on in that direction. And that’s the big problem with it. And what we need to do is we need to encourage constructive dissent. We need to encourage what I call loyal rebels: people who believe in the mission, believe in what you’re trying to achieve, but are a little bit rebellious and doubtful as to whether you are using the best methods.
Adrian Tennant: So, Paul, could you give us some practical ways to fight groupthink?
Paul Sloane: Yes, there are quite a number mentioned in the book. One very good way is to use de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. So I remember when I was working for a big software company, we had an offsite meeting in Newport, Rhode Island. And the CEO, who was a very forceful, intelligent character, came up with his pet new idea, which was called freescholarships.com, and it was, “We’re going to go away a lot of money, generate a lot of coverage, get a lot more software sales.” Nobody would nay-say him or go against him. And the idea went through on the nod, and very nearly bankrupted the company by the time we gave away millions and millions of dollars, we had to pull a plug on it. And I’m sure if we’d used de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, where everybody has to say what they think is good about the idea with the yellow hat on and then with the black hat on, everyone has to find fault and, articulate the downsides and risks of the idea, including its originator. Even if you think it’s your idea and you think it’s a great idea, you have to point out some risk or problem with it. If we’d have had a much more rounded and open and sensible discussion and come to a better conclusion, I’m sure. Maybe put some safeguards in place. So that’s one approach. Another is to bring in a provocative outsider. Somebody who will just challenge your thinking. You can even appoint someone as devil’s advocate whose job it is to do that. And there are methods that you can use where you generate a lot of ideas anonymously without anyone dominating the conversation. So a method like the nominal method in brainstorming, everyone writes down ideas, and then passes them around. And by the time you sort out the best ideas, you don’t know where they’ve come from. So you don’t get any ego invested in any particular idea.
Adrian Tennant: Well, you mentioned brainstorming. In your book, three sections are especially relevant to anyone tasked with getting the most out of brainstorming sessions and finding ways of differentiating brands from the competition. In the first of these, you encourage readers to break the rules. Paul, how so?
Paul Sloane: Yes. So the great thing about marketing is that you can try all sorts of different things. We conform to all sorts of rules, which are explicit and implicit in the companies that we work for and in the markets we work for, nobody would ever do this and nobody would ever do that. These are the implicit rules. And you know, in football, in soccer, you can only have 11 players on the pitch. But in marketing, you can spend $1 or a million dollars. You can do one advert, or 10 different ones, there’s no limit. You can break the rules. You can set your own rules. When Freddie Mercury wrote Bohemian Rhapsody, he didn’t follow any of the rules for a pop song. It had six different sections. It had lyrics about shooting a man. It was very long. It was orchestral. They took it to the producers, I think it was Deca Records, and said, “We want to release this as a single.” And the producers said, “No way. You can’t release this. It breaks all the rules. No one will play it on the radio. Iit’s six minutes long, and they won’t play anything that’s more than three minutes.” And what did he do? He approached a colleague of his, Kenny Everett, who was a DJ on Capital Radio, and he gave him a copy of this song, and he said “Play sections of it.” And he played sections of it all through the weekend. On Monday morning, fans went to Tower Records and Virgin Records, and other record stores, and said, “Can we have this?” And they said, “No, it’s not available yet.” And the pressure was such that the record company had to release it. So he broke all the rules, and he created what became one of the greatest songs of the last century for rock and pop music. And we see time and time again, people who break the rules can get things done and achieve things – that the people who conform to the rules don’t.
Adrian Tennant: As a Brit living and working in the US, a section that really resonates with me in your book includes your advice to think like an outsider. Can you talk about that and why being an outsider can be beneficial?
Paul Sloane: Well, there’s a lot of evidence that if you look through the list of great innovators, and entrepreneurs in the USA, a lot of them are of immigrant descent, first- level immigrant descent. You know, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both their parents are Jewish immigrants into the USA. Tony Hsieh, who founded Zappos, is another. Immigrants see things differently. They’ve fought their way in, and they don’t necessarily conform to the rules. They’ve seen a different culture. They know there’s a different way of doing things, and therefore, they’re more open-minded. And very often great innovators are outsiders. So, thinking like an outsider is one piece of advice. And if you can’t think like an outsider, bring in an outsider. One of my clients, Siemens Drives, they sponsor the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, and they bring in the conductor. And they say, “Tell us some things about teamwork. Tell us some things about how you encourage your staff to turn up for all their rehearsals on time,” or whatever else. And getting somebody who comes from a completely different background to give their input gives you a fresh perspective. So think like an outsider or bring in an outsider!
Adrian Tennant: Paul, you also state in Lateral Thinking for Every Day that we need to be willing to ask dumb questions. How can playing dumb help us come up with new ideas?
Paul Sloane: Well, what I say is, the first day you joined the company you worked for, you asked a whole bunch of dumb questions. “Why do we do this?” “What’s the purpose of this report?” “What do these initials stand for?” You ask all those questions because you’re new in the company. Chances are you’ve stopped asking those questions now. You just take everything for granted. You just do that report whether it’s needed or not. And if you go back and ask the very basic questions – the very fundamental questions – “Why are we doing this?” “What’s the added value for the customer here?” “What’s the real benefit?” “Is this necessary?” “Is there a better way to do this?” – then you are more likely to challenge the assumptions on which everything is built and more likely to come up with great ideas. So I want you to imagine that you are working for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1990, and you go to a meeting, and you start asking some dumb questions. You say, “Do we have to charge a lot of money for encyclopedias?” “Could a free encyclopedia work?” People would’ve started laughing. And, “Do we need to hire experts or could we just use volunteers?” People would’ve howled with laughter and ridicule, and it may have ended your career to even ask those questions. But they were necessary to challenge the orthodoxies, which eventually, first of all, Microsoft Encarta, and then Wikipedia came along with a completely different model, which challenged all of those assumptions, and asked very basic questions. “Do we need to pay anyone to create an encyclopedia?” Turns out you don’t. It’s amazing.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
Adrian Tennant: Each month in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, the Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in consumer research, retail, and branding. Our featured book for February is Lateral Thinking For Every Day: Extraordinary solutions to everyday problems by Paul Sloane. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 25 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with the exclusive promo code, BIGEYE25. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free paperback and e-book bundle offer. When you order direct from Kogan Page, shipping is always free to the US and UK, and it helps the authors too. So to order your copy of Lateral Thinking for Every Day, go to KoganPage.com. That’s K O G A N – P A G E dot com.
Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Paul Sloane, the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club Selection, Lateral Thinking For Every Day, published by Kogan Page. Bigeye is headquartered in Orlando, which is also home to Walt Disney World. InLateral Thinking for Every Day, you describe the Disney Method for generating creative ideas. Paul, what is it about this method that you particularly like?
Paul Sloane: What I like about this method is it forces you to adopt a different perspective, it pushes you out of your comfort zone. So normally in a meeting, you’ve got some optimists, and you’ve got some pessimists, and you’ve got some people who are very hard headed and practical. Some people are interested in production or finance or anything else, and they come at the problem from their perspective, their department’s point of view. Now, with the Disney Method, what you do is everyone has to adopt one of four perspectives in turn, and it’s very good for generating ideas and refining ideas for new projects. It isn’t applicable for every kind of management problem. But first of all, you go out of the room, and you come back as dreamers. And dreamers in Walt Disney terms can think of anything, and they come up with any idea at all, which would meet the objective without any constraint or restriction. They’re not worried about resources, they’re not worried about possibilities. They’re not worried about what can and can’t be done or can and can’t be afforded. So they come up with ideal solutions. They dream of an ideal solution, and they articulate this. They write this on flip charts around the wall. And they leave those, and they go out of the room. Then the same group of people re-enter the room with a different mindset. And this time they are realists. And what they do is they look at these ideas, and they constructively criticize them. And they look to choose the most practical, the best of these creative ideas. And they work it up into a plan. So they might take one or two of these, and they’ll say, “Well, what if we did it this way? This could work. And if we put in these resources, we could do it this way. We could experiment, we could do a trial here.” And they come up with a plan, and then they leave that plan on the wall, and they go out. And the next people that come in are the critics. And the critics are there to find fault with this plan in a constructive way, not in a cynical way, and to point out any drawbacks or downsides or risks. And off they go. And they will then criticize the plan. And at this stage, you could go back to the realists who could amend it, or you could go back to the dreamers and say, “No, it didn’t work. Critics were just too critical.” And the fourth group is the observers. And the observers represent the outside community. “How would this look to the outside world?” And you can start with them and say, “What does this problem look like to the outside world?” Or you can end with them, or they can come in any stage and say, “Well, as a complete outsider, it seems to me that what you’re doing is this or that this doesn’t fit with your brand…” or whatever else. And you move between those different personas as many times as is necessary. But you must all be in the same persona at the same time. In that sense, it’s similar to de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.
Adrian Tennant: Well, the Disney Method sounds great for in-person group ideation, but as you know, there’s been a shift toward remote working since the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul, do you have any examples of lateral thinking tools or techniques that you’ve observed work especially well for remote, distributed teams?
Paul Sloane: Well, yes, there’s a chapter in the book – chapter 69 – one of the last chapters, called Remote Collaboration. If you’ve got most of your team working from home, what can you do about it? And I talk about two musicians, Ben Gibbard, and Jimmy Tabrello. Way back in 2001, one would lay down some beats and send it to the other by post. And then they would add some melodies and then they send it back. And they kept doing this time and time again, refining at each point in a binary way. So one would do it, work on it, send it back, and then the other would work on it, send it. And they carried on like this. And they used the US Postal Service, and they came up with an album, and they called their band The US Postal Service which the US Postal Service initially was not too pleased about! But they went on to create some big hits, and they showed that remote collaboration is possible and you can do this, with groups, small groups. Everyone generates some ideas. You circulate them to different people. They select the most promising. They work in twos or threes on Zoom or Teams to refine the best ideas. It’s not as good as being in the room, I don’t think, but nonetheless, it still works. And you can generate creative ideas, circulate them, select the most promising, refine them, and then put forward proposals for trials.
Adrian Tennant: Of course, much of the entertainment and information we consume is funded by advertising. In your book, you have a section entitled Lateral Marketing, the benefits of being outrageous. Paul, how can an idea be outrageous without it backfiring?
Paul Sloane: Well, there’s always a risk, and if you’re going to be outrageous, there’s a risk you’ll offend some people and people get offended very easily these days, I have to say. So you have to be watchful of that. But, as Michael O’Leary, the chairman of RyanAir says, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!” Bad publicity sells more airline seats than good publicity. And there are companies that excel in this. And one of the companies I talk about is Paddy Power. And Paddy Power in the UK is a big gambling company. They have one of their officers, his title is Head of Mischief, and his job is to generate topical mischief. And they’ve done this several times. So when the horsemeat scandal hit the UK, and it was found there was horse meat in the food chain, it horrified a lot of people in Britain. I mean, people in France and Spain eat horse meat all the time, but in Britain, they don’t, and they were horrified. Paddy Power brought out with our annual results a book of horsemeat recipes called From Stable to Table. And it was outrageous, and it told you how you could prepare horsemeat, and it was deliberately provocative. It got a lot of coverage in the press, and it got them the publicity that they wanted. The most complained about advert on British TV featured a game, an advert about some blind footballers. And they were playing football with a ball with a bell in it. That’s what they do. So they hear it, and then they kick it. And a cat wanders into the game onto the field, and the cat’s got a bell on around his neck. And you can imagine what happens. So one of the players kicks he thinks what is the ball, sends [the] cat flying up into a tree, and then the man from Paddy Power comes in. He says, “Sorry, we can’t get Tiddles back, but you can get your money back if you bet with our special bet.” Anyway, thousands of people complained about this advert. Most of them were older women who are cat lovers. But that didn’t bother Paddy Power because that’s not their target market. Their target market is young men who they want to get gambling and they all loved it. So if you’re gonna offend a community, a demographic, just ask, “Does this demographic really matter to me? And what level of offense is it?” And if you can do it with some humor, it really helps. Humor helps when you’re outrageous. And there are many other examples in the book and many examples from, marketing, which are truly outrageous things that really worked. But sometimes they don’t work, and you’ve just gotta be careful.
Adrian Tennant: Paul, I know you mentioned earlier you’re a big fan of games that can boost the brain. What are some of your favorites and why?
Paul Sloane: Well, in the book, I do talk about games and I talk about different kinds of games for lateral thinking and logical thinking. So there are games that improve your logical thinking, and things like Sudoku, very good for that and maybe backgammon and some others and chess. And there are games that are very good for lateral thinking, and cryptic crosswords. Yeah. You read the clue and you have to think, “What assumption am I making here? Is there a completely different way to interpret what the setter has come up with here?” And I love cryptic crosswords. I love a game called Codenames where you have to find links between different words, which come up on a grid. and it’s a real test in lateral thinking as to how you can put these together with a clue, which will suggest two or three different words, in combination. So there are various games that I list in there, and things like Pictionary, you have to think differently and be creative. So there’s lots of games, which I think are very good for stimulating the brain. There’s a lot of evidence that older people who play games retain their cognitive abilities much better and longer than those who do not. So, I’m a big advocate of playing games. I love playing games, and I would recommend them as a way of developing your creative and logical thinking.
Adrian Tennant: Lateral Thinking for Every Day is your twentieth book. In what ways does lateral thinking help you develop ideas for your books or the process of researching and writing them?
Paul Sloane: Well, I’m always on the lookout for examples of lateral thinking, and I love to collect them and see them, and then I’ll write a blog about them. I was on a cruise recently, and I gave six different talks, and one of them was on the Dambusters and the Dambusters raid in 1943. And what got me interested in that was the concept of a bouncing bomb. You know, bombs drop vertically. That’s where everyone knows about bombs. They drop vertically. And Barnes Wallis had a very lateral idea. He asked a question, “Is it possible to make a bomb travel horizontally?” And he came up with this idea of the bouncing bomb. And then in a very English way, one of the people that worked with him in Vickers, who was a cricketer, said, “Well, it will bounce better if you put spin on it.” And he said, “Should I use topspin or backspin?” The cricketer said, “Backspin will give you more control.” And they put backspin on it. And then the rest of the story is a marvelous story of heroism and daring, and resourcefulness. ‘Cause they had to come up with a lot of innovations. It’s an amazing story, but it was all based on me observing this piece of lateral thinking of Barnes Wallis. So, everywhere I go, I’m looking for examples and things that I can either turn into stories or puzzles.
Adrian Tennant: Now, in previous episodes of IN CLEAR FOCUS, we’ve discussed some of the ways in which artificial intelligence and machine learning tools can be used to augment human creativity. But we’ve yet to see anything truly original. All the tools out there essentially use components of existing data. So Paul, I’m curious, do you think AI will ever rival human ingenuity?
Paul Sloane: That’s a very interesting question, and I think the answer is yes, it will. We’re getting there slowly and at the moment, what I say to people is, the one thing that computers can’t do is ask intelligent questions. They can give answers, but your job as a creative marketing professional is to ask really smart questions, and searching questions, and questions that other people aren’t asking, and that will help you come up with creative ideas. But ultimately, I think AI will come to that level where it can ask really smart questions based on masses of experience. And what you’ll do is you’ll give it a problem, global warming, inflation, or something else and say, “What ideas have you got?” And it can model all sorts of different things in great detail in a way that humans can’t do. So if we raised interest rates and we raised taxes, what would happen? So it can model all of these things. And similarly, in a marketing sense, it will eventually be smart enough to create models of consumer behavior. Which says, “If we raise the price and double the pack size or whatever, what would be the effect on our sales?” So I think artificial intelligence is going to be an amazing addition, and possibly in the long term, a threat to us as well in our jobs, maybe in our civilization! So there’s a very interesting discussion at the moment about what we do with artificial intelligence as it gets smarter and smarter. You know, I’m a chess player, and I’ve lived through the period when chess supercomputers eventually beat the world champion. Now they’ve gone way past the top players in the world, and the top chess programs play against each other. That’s all they can play because they’re so good. And they’re getting better still at the very top level. They’re still getting better because they can play millions of games and learn. So eventually, you can imagine a world in which there are no humans left. We’ve all killed each other, and there are just a number of computers playing chess against each other forever.
Adrian Tennant: Paul, what do you hope readers will take away from Lateral Thinking for Every Day?
Paul Sloane: I hope they’ll take away the idea that they can be more open-minded. They can challenge assumptions, they can ask questions, and they can have a more interesting life by just getting out of their comfort zone and doing some lateral thinking, and trying some new things. And I hope they’ll get inspiration from the stories in the book and ideas for how they can use the techniques to actually come up with new ideas.
Adrian Tennant: Paul, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, your books, your speaking engagements, or your workshops, where can they find you?
Paul Sloane: Well, you can find me if you go onto YouTube and you search Paul Sloane TEDx, you’ll see one. I’ve done two TEDx talks, one in English, one in French. So the English one’s very good, Are You Open-Minded? That will give you a flavor of my style for speaking if you want me to speak at your conference or workshop. And for more details on me and my books and my online courses, destination-innovation.com is my website, and it’s a little hyphen between the destination and the innovation. So destination hyphen innovation.com is my website. And I’m also on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Adrian Tennant: And if you’d like a copy of Paul’s book, Lateral Thinking for Every Day: Extraordinary solutions to ordinary problems, you can save 25 percent on either a print or electronic version when you purchase directly from the publisher online at KoganPage.com. Just add the promo code, BIGEYE25 at the checkout. Paul, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Paul Sloane: It was my pleasure entirely, Adrian. Thank you very much.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Paul Sloane, innovation and creative thinking expert and the author of the book, Lateral Thinking For Every Day: As always, you’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com. Just select podcasts from the menu. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.