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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Want Smarter People and Organizations? Teach Lateral Thinking.

 Teach Lateral Thinking
Formal education, in many cases, is so slow or out-of-date that venture capitalists pay bright people to skip school and start Internet companies.
— Shane Snow, author of Smartcuts

What Lateral Thinking Is

You're driving in the rain. Someone must have turned on a giant hose up in the heavens because it is coming down! Suddenly, you notice 3 hitchhikers on the side of the road - a drenched and shaking old woman, a woman of your dreams, and a friend who's helped you out in the past. You stop and realize you have only one seat available. Whom do you help? 

This is the story Shane Snow, a journalist, a successful entrepreneur, and the author of Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking uses to introduce his readers to the concept of lateral thinking. Snow gives the lateral thinking answer to the question of whom to help, which we will talk about later, but for now let's define lateral thinking as a creative, often counterintuitive approach to problem-solving that helps individuals and organizations achieve success using alternative, often faster or simpler ways.

This article describes how you can apply lateral thinking in teaching, learning, and creating more successful teams and organizations. While you read, you will discover how to apply the key concepts from the book Smartcuts to your life and line.

What Lateral Thinking Isn't

While learning how to leverage lateral thinking will shorten your path to success, it will not eliminate hard work. It will however help you simplify - to use what works and eliminate what doesn't. Rather than keeping your nose down and waiting your turn, the lateral approach shortens your path to the top by shunning the traditional "climb the ladder" method and creating an alternate, uncommon, and unexpected path to individual or industry success.

Win Small, Gain Momentum, and Pivot

Big goals overwhelm. Seeing a long path ahead with little progress is demoralizing. In Smartcuts, the author brings up "psychology of small wins," which explains that focusing on small but significant tasks and succeeding at them "attracts allies" and "lowers resistance." This builds momentum toward accomplishing the big goal, because it motivates to keep going.

Whether you're a teacher, a coach, or a CEO, create conditions to help your proteges achieve frequent small but meaningful wins by first breaking down a big goal into many smaller more manageable tasks. Allow them to get good at it fast.

But don't stop there. Take advantage of the gained momentum and pivot to something bigger or better. Once you get rolling create a new challenge. Find a way to use the new skills and learning in something else. This will spur creativity and engender new approaches to old and new problems.

Mentorship (It's Not What You Think)

Getting an industry titan to mentor you can be a huge advantage if the process occurs organically and you know the mentor before he or she mentors you. This is not the case in most situations.

For example, it's unlikely that Barack Obama handlers will encourage the former president to become your mentor even if you're an aspiring, idealistic future politician with big dreams. It is however easy - and smart if you want to channel Obama - to read Obama's own publications, biography books that describe his methods, and watch YouTube videos paying attention to how he carried himself in public and in challenging situations.

Shane Snow cites research in Smartcuts that formal mentoring is often ineffective. He suggests it's often better to track individuals successful in your domain and analyze how they achieved their success to speed up yours. Finding the right book or TedTalk or a Masterclass by the right individual can supercharge your progress. 

Rapid Negative Feedback

Negative feedback does not have to be negative. On the contrary, if given the right way rapid negative feedback is more effective than "atta boy" or "atta girl." For negative feedback to work, it is important to make sure that it is situational and specific but not personal. 

For example, you can approach an employee and say: "Your client presentations are wrong," or you can say "I see you give a lot of eye contact to the right side of the room and not enough to the people on the left. Did you notice some might be more engaged than others?" The second way of approaching the problem takes longer, but is depersonalized and specific.

A teacher might say to a student: "You are not helping your team be successful because you're on your phone all the time" and she might comply but will feel "called out" and judged as worthless. Alternatively, if you say: " I noticed you're staring at your phone a lot and I'm concerned you're not contributing to your team enough," you state your observation based on the situation while allowing the student to save face and correct the behavior without unnecessary angst.

And as for the rapid part, the idea is to give and receive feedback quickly to iterate your approach and keep pushing existing boundaries. Interestingly, admitting failure as opposed to blaming external factors leads to better results. According to Smartcuts, owning your failure will lead to deeper personal reflection and learning as a result. Blaming someone or something else prevents introspection.

Platforms: Teach Skills & How to Think/Learn

It often seems that formal education is a world of wheel reinvention. We claim our students must learn how certain theories and facts came to be before they can use shortcut tools that allow them to skip steps and be successful faster. In his book, Snow uses the phrase "effort for the sake of effort" to describe the "foolish tradition of paying dues" we have in education. Our students call this "busy work" and they're onto something.

You might have heard about Finland outscoring every other nation on tests, but did you know that Finland has more researchers per capita than any other nation and is ranked at the top in technology innovation by several studies? The book gives three main reasons for Finland's educational system prominence: (1) Highly qualified teachers (Master's degree or higher), (2) Teaching skills and existing platforms, and (3) Focus on depth not amount of knowledge. Let's discuss the last two. 

Finns don't care about their kids becoming Jacks of All Trades as much as the U.S. Education, Inc. does. They gut curricula and allow students to learn to think and problem solve in the areas they care about. Instead of teaching everybody everything about math, Finnish schools teach students platforms such as knowing how to learn effectively, gain skills efficiently, and use problem solving tools creatively to work on solving problems in their passion domains. Rather than being hung up on teaching long division, students are encouraged (and mentored by highly qualified teachers) to dive deep and leverage the existing platforms such as computers, calculators, algorithms etc. and learned platforms such as critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity to discover meaning and create with it.

The lesson for the U.S. (and maybe other) CEOs is this: The bigger your company, the more of your employees learned how to memorize facts and follow rules. So if you want original thought and creativity, teach them to use the platforms you have, and give them freedom to try and fail. Or hire only Finns.

And if you want smarter proteges and organization gift them a copy of Smartcuts

The Lesson for Everybody

To achieve success faster, find small wins, gain momentum, and pivot to bigger or better.

Learn from live mentors if you can but learn from those who came before you and knew their trade - it's all well-documented in books, videos, and other media. 

Try often, fail often, own your failures, collect and reflect on feedback, learn from it, and iterate.

Don't reinvent the wheel - use platforms others have build for you and add on top of them.

Master the platforms you need - everything else is a waste of time.


You turn your hazards on as you see all three running toward your car. Who do you choose? It's a humane thing to do to help the old woman but you don't meet the woman of your dreams every day. And, you owe your friend... 

I highly recommend you read the book Smartcuts to find out what the best lateral thinking answer is or Sign Up for my Free Newsletter here and I will tell you. Whichever you choose, I promise it will be worth your time. Thanks for reading and let's talk soon!

Oskar