Turn the literal into the lateral

Innovative thinking often means bringing a level of abstraction to your thinking that results in not just lots of ordinary ideas, but instead interesting, compelling and creative ideas that haven’t been thought of before. This level of abstraction is what results in us seeing and thinking about something differently, in a way that grabs us, perhaps amuses us and hopefully entices us to do something as a result.

Turning the obvious into the intriguing requires being lateral. Thinking laterally allows us to see things in different ways, which enable us to communicate things in different ways that intrigue and engage us.

To think more abstractly, you need to take your level of thinking higher than we normally would. 

The higher abstraction allows us to create reinterpretations of the concept we have and create more interest in our new idea. This abstraction can be applied to either a product or new process or even a marketing message.

In the following model, the bottom lower row represents a concrete detailed nitty-gritty type of message. This is essentially something that is obvious, literal and most likely forgettable. The higher level, which is more abstract, is intriguing, lateral and more than likely memorable. We don’t want to be too abstract otherwise people won’t get it, yet we don’t want to be too literal otherwise we won’t grab anyone’s attention and make them pause to think.


Imagination is a skill we all have—whether it is the ability to imagine a disaster happening at home if the dog gets out or being able to imagine a new way of servicing a client that has never been done before.

If I were to ask you to imagine a totally new piece of technology that you could invent and apply in your world, you may be able to do it. However, chances are that you would struggle with it. More than likely, you would come up with a variation of something that already exists. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s innovation to create a variation. Engineers tend to work well with variations and incremental innovation. 

A good innovator finds innovative leaps that may be re-inventions or totally new inventions. They do this by lifting their level of thinking. Innovation that comes from variation happens because we think on a fairly concrete level. Big, innovative leaps come from starting to think on an abstract level.

Psychologists call these construal levels, but I like to call them logical levels. The lower the logical level, the more concrete, specific and detailed the thinking. The higher the logical level, the more abstract the thinking. The challenge in looking for new ideas is lifting the level of abstraction higher than concrete detailed thinking. 

Here’s an example. If we wanted to innovate on the induction program at a large organisation and asked for some ideas, here’s what generally would happen.

The mind will gravitate to our last induction experience and recall the relevant materials, methodologies and information that we remember. This is called anchoring, and we use assumptions based on our past experiences to help formulate thoughts and make sense of the situation. The only drawback to relying on our assumptions is that we inadvertently look to create ideas based on already existing assumptions, not assumptions of what could be.

If our experience of an induction included a big fat induction manual and sitting in a room all on our own, then we’ll use that as our base assumption on which to start generating ideas. We might start thinking of ideas such as, ‘No one has time to read the whole manual’ or ‘Reading is boring, we should have some videos instead’. Or even better, ‘Why not have a group of people being inducted at the same time so they meet some new people’. The ideas continue. Yes, they are all good ideas and an improvement on what might have been before, yet it doesn’t really shout POSSIBILITY does it?

Good innovators allow themselves to be more abstract. Some might call it being conceptual. An innovator will start by asking ‘What does induction mean and what’s it really about?’  or “How else could it be interpreted? With this type of thinking, we are simply exploring and utilising curiosity. 

For the induction example. Induction could be interpreted as:

Helping people to learn the ropes
Unpacking the organisation’s processes
Helping people join the team
Introducing people to the team
Welcoming people
Initiating people

After having poured over those abstract interpretations, good innovators start to consider people’s needs, desires and potential responses. They think, ‘I don’t want them to feel alienated and wondering if they’ve made a bad decision coming to the organisation. How could I really welcome them?’ 

The more a designer thinks this way, the more ideas they have: ‘How about we have a welcome party at morning tea, with a welcome cake?’ ‘Maybe throughout the day we send in the creator of each one of key business process maps and take them through them step by step?’

Abstraction and changing the level of construance comes naturally to some people. For others, it feels awkward and clunky at first, yet when you’ve done it once, it becomes easier. In a short time, you’ll be jumping straight into that high level and coming up with original ideas that your colleagues think are fantastic. 

Welcome to the world of possibility!

One last thing - I'm running a half day commercial innovation summit with the Sydney Business School & Wollongong University on the 29th of July in the Sydney CBD. Great for those looking for  innovation breakthroughs - be them in process or product innovation.