How would you create a vehicle out of cardboard, pencils, soft drink cup lids, mailing labels, paper clips, rubber bands, toothpicks and scissors that could hold and transport ten Ping-Pong balls when blown across the floor by a leaf blower? By the way, you’re on a team of seven and you have five minutes.
When my three daughters were in elementary school, they participated in an extracurricular program called, “Destination Imagination.” Kids participating in Destination Imagination form teams and compete at creative problem solving competitions. Winning teams at the local level could move to their state competition and winning teams at the state competition are invited to the Global Finals competition held at the University of Tennessee each May. Since the program provided an engaging way for kids to explore three important subjects: creative problem solving, leadership, and teamwork, my wife and I became avid supporters and volunteers.
Teams participating in Destination Imagination solve two types of challenges. The teams spend months designing a solution to one of the published challenges and then present their solution at the tournament. While at the tournament, teams are given a second challenge, the “instant challenge,” which they have never seen before and must solve on the spot. After a few years with the program, I was asked to be an appraiser at the state tournament. The tournament officials assigned me to score high school teams solving an “instant challenge.” I watched twelve high school teams tackle a very tricky instant challenge at the state tournament that year with varying degrees of success.
At tournaments, teams check in at their appointed time for their instant challenge and then they are escorted to an instant challenge room. Teams pledge not to discuss what happens in the instant challenge room so that no team gets an unfair advantage by knowing what to expect. Only the appraisers and the team’s coach are allowed to watch the teams solve the instant challenge, parents must wait in a designated part of the tournament site. As a parent and former coach, I don’t know which is worse, not knowing what is happening in the instant challenge room or watching your team struggle with a challenge without being able to help. Destination Imagination has a strict non-interference rule, so if you’re the kind of parent that can’t keep your hands off the science fair project, be forewarned, Destination Imagination will be great for your kid and stressful for you.
That day the teams walked into a room to find a large open space on the floor and a table of materials. On the floor at one end of the room was a line of tape. Behind the line was a leaf blower. For their instant challenge, teams were given five minutes to construct a vehicle from the materials on the table that would hold and transport ten Ping-Pong balls. At the end of five minutes, the teams were to place the vehicle behind the line. They would have one minute to use the leaf blower to move the vehicle as far as possible across the room. Teams received points for distance travelled multiplied by the number of Ping-Pong balls remaining in the vehicle when they turned off the leaf blower.
Almost all the teams that day focused on the word, “vehicle.” Almost all the teams noticed that among the materials were items that looked like wheels (soft drink cup lids) and axles (pencils). Consequently, almost all the teams built some form or cart with a lid to contain the Ping-Pong balls. A few teams created a sail to catch the wind from the leaf blower. Given the power of the wind created by the leaf blower, the makeshift wheels and sails were as resilient as a kite in a hurricane. The diabolical scoring based on the distance travelled multiplied by the number of balls remaining in the vehicle left a lot of teams with a score of zero after the leaf blower wrecked the vehicles and scattered the Ping-Pong balls.
One team approached the challenge in a completely different way. They didn’t allow themselves to be constrained by the setup of the challenge. Instead of focusing on the word, “vehicle” or the suggestive nature of the materials, the team focused on containing and moving Ping-Pong balls. After thinking it through for a few minutes, the team rolled a piece of cardboard into a tube. They closed one end with a soft drink cup lid, filled the tube with the Ping-Pong balls and then sealed the other end with another soft drink cup lid; basically, they created a can filled with Ping-Pong balls. They laid the can down on the floor, turned on the leaf blower and watched in delight as it rolled across the floor and came to rest against the wall on the other side of the room with all ten Ping-Pong balls securely contained.
In his 1970 book Lateral Thinking, Edward deBono made a distinction between two thinking processes. He described vertical thinking as reasoning in a straight line or following a sequence of steps as one might do to solve a well-defined problem in logic or mathematics. By contrast, lateral thinking concerns itself with generating alternative ways of interpreting the problem. “Lateral thinking,” according to deBono, “is also concerned with breaking out of the concept prisons of old ideas” (1970, p. 8). The team that created a Ping-Pong ball can in response to the instant challenge used lateral thinking to create a novel solution.
Most of the problem-solving methodologies used in organizations (process reengineering, lean six sigma, kaizen, etc.) have strong vertical thinking orientations. Vertical thinking may not produce novel or unconventional solutions, but it will reliably yield a solution that improves the situation. Lateral thinking attracts intuitive leaps or insights by remaining open to information, ideas and connections that may seem irrelevant. As deBono put it, “Vertical thinking digs the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is concerned with digging a hole in another place” (p.15). In other words, vertical thinking will improve the status quo; lateral thinking will increase the novelty of your options.
Creative inquiry is not just about posing questions that spur new ideas. Creative inquiry is also about posing questions that reframe our assumptions. Once we define the problem we want solved, we inadvertently impose constraints. For example, If you manage a hotel that has been receiving complaints about how long it takes for the elevators to arrive, you might believe you have a “slow elevator problem.” If you focus on the people rather than the elevator, you might reframe the issue as, “a bored guest problem.” It’s easier to reduce complaints by putting mirrors and other distractions near the elevator doors than it is to upgrade the elevator system.