Thinking in Three Dimensions

Creativity isn’t just lateral

This post originally appeared on Linked In

I’m aware that I spend more time thinking about thinking than most people, but seeing as my job is creating or clarifying thinking to help organisations get going, I hope I can be excused. I’m going to propose three different dimensions of creative thought — lateral thinking, vertical thinking and a twist in thinking. After telling you what I mean, I’m going to suggest that using this model is a practical step towards the mystical-sounding goal of “being more creative”.


Before I start I want to say that there are some ‘fancy’ terms that I don’t really like. For example, ‘disruptive thinking’ gets used a lot in the type of consulting work I do — not because it’s a cliché but because it doesn’t describe a type of thinking at all, but a type of outcome. It seems to mostly mean ‘thinking that disrupts’ which gets used to mean ‘extremely different but not too crazy thinking that can help us stand out’ which could be better expressed as ‘effective new thinking’. Clearly it’s popular to have fresh phrases for things (like how no-one wants to change direction anymore but you can’t move for all the pivots) but it would be helpful to be more specific about what we mean.

Dimensions of creative thought

So, what are helpful ways to think about creative thinking? Well, I like the term ‘lateral thinking’ because it gives you some guidance — you can ask yourself ‘what lateral movement should we make in our thinking?’ — For me the relationship between thought-movement and space-movement works. In this post I’m proposing that thought-movement can be in three dimensions. Without getting lost too deep into the philosophy of concepts/language, this is clearly only one way to look at something that there are infinite ways to look at. But I find it helpful. I’m using the way a helicopter moves as a visual picture of what I mean — which keeps us away from too many vagaries of abstraction, and lets us have a picture of a helicopter.

Lateral — moving sideways — thinking about who else has faced the challenge

The first dimension of thinking is lateral movement. Imagine a helicopter moving sideways. The thinking equivalent is asking the question “who else is facing a conceptually similar problem in a completely different context?”. So in this dimension of thinking would be taking something that is successful in one context and applying it in a new one. That something could be

Vertical — moving up and down — thinking at different levels of strategic intent

As a young consultant an important mentor gave me one of the most potent pieces of advice i’ve received:

“Learn when to take a 10 000 foot perspective, ignoring the details, and when to zoom right in and get really specific. There is a time for both.”

This is the vertical dimension of thinking. Imagine a helicopter moving up and down. People tend to state their position as either “a big picture thinker” or “a detailed thinker” — often maligning the other — but genuine creative thought is moving between the two fluently. Every statement, problem or idea can be conceptualised at different levels of intent:

  • Thinking from high-up is thinking broadly about direction, motivation and context. Defining things more loosely gives more room to think openly and widely about multiple potential solutions that are very different. To think from higher up you can ask “Why?”
  • Thinking from down-low is thinking about texture, detail and action. Defining things more specifically allows us to think very precisely about nuanced options. To think from lower down you can ask “How?”

When progress is stalling, thinking from a different level of intent unlocks new options. And being aware of how loosely or specifically we define questions, ideas and strategies gives us more choices and more powerful conversations. And Ludwig Wittgenstein is proud of us.

Twist — rotating — thinking with a new tone or mood about the same thing

Often people say they want “a big change in how we think” — but really want a new twist without changing much. In my work this often means they don’t want to change the business model, channel, supply chain, production capabilities, etc. It’s easy to deride this as “not innovative” but the truth is a twist in thinking can have a huge impact and is the heart of so many brand refreshes or new product launches. This can look like changing the tone (including visual tone), frame of reference/metaphor, or just having a new energy/confidence about an old truth. Imagine a helicopter rotating on the spot. There are 100 great examples, but here are two from my work:

  • When I was at What If I worked with Virgin Media Business to find a ‘disruptive broadband offer’. Through the project we realised that all competitors lease lines off BT on a wholesale basis at fixed price per MB — while VMB own their own fibre network that has huge excess of daytime capacity. Rather than mess around with “disruptive” new business models or service offers, the biggest success would be to smash the paradigms of speed restriction on B2B broadband — the outcome was Big Red Internet — a confident market-smashing 1GB of all the internet you could ever want — but you could say “it’s just more bandwidth”.
  • At Let’s Go I have been working with Cafédirect who famously pioneered the Fairtrade movement in UK and give 50% of profits to growers. Meanwhile, with coffee culture on the march, being famous for ethics is no longer enough. The good news is that with fine quality coffee at the heart of what they do, changing their frame of reference to artisan cafe culture makes a lot of sense — with interesting implications for innovation and design. As an example, the difference in tone between the old and new instant coffee packaging… but the coffee was great already.

Thinking in three dimensions

Having set up three distinct ways of thinking, I’m predictably going to say that you can’t really separate them absolutely. Like piloting a helicopter, true creative thought is the movement in these dimensions, often in combination. Still, when you need a creative breakthrough, asking these three questions wont hurt:

  • What other contexts can I apply wisdom from? What lateral movement can I make in my thinking?
  • How can I think more broadly or more specifically about this issue? What vertical movement can I make in my thinking?
  • How can I twist my frame of reference without changing much? What rotation can I make in my thinking?

Let’s Go is a consulting practice that offers practical support for organisations who want to get better at collaboration. 2017 is a big year for us and we will be busy with:

  • Inspiration and events to make sense of collaboration — for example engaging top 65 leaders of a pharmaceutical division through what it takes to navigate collaboration (culminating in co-building a sculpture)
  • Embedding structures for more productive collaboration — for example setting up a new way of working together for a group of public sector organisations
  • Training and leadership development — for example training and coaching a housing provider on navigating complex partnerships
  • Taking on complex collaborative challenges — for example helping a large charity support the ecosystem around employee giving