Thinking about lateral thinking

ClickerExpo - Train betterDuring the 2017 Stamford ClickerExpo I attended a session by Terry Ryan on lateral thinking. The session was called: “When nothing is working: Lateral thinking for dog trainers.” This session included demonstrations, drills and discussions to help the audience practice thinking about things in new ways.

At the beginning of the session, Terry emphasized that the point of this session wasn’t to bash conventional thinking or conventional ways of doing things. There are lots of tools and techniques that are often used by clicker trainers, and these things usually work very well in most situations.

However, sometimes your typical tools and ideas just don’t work. In these cases, lateral thinking skills help you discover the unconventional answer that will solve the problem you face.

What is lateral (unconventional) thinking?

Most of the time, people continue doing things the way they have always been done or rely on methods that have worked well in the past. This usually works, but sometimes you may find yourself in a situation that you don’t know how to solve.

Lateral thinking helps you start thinking about “What if….” or “Why not….” or “Let’s try…”. It helps you look at things from a completely different perspective so that you can think of new solutions.

Lateral thinking helps you look at things from a completely different perspective. Click To Tweet

In many problem situations, there is more than one “right” answer. Lateral thinking gets those proverbial creative juices flowing so that you can come up with lots of right answers and possible solutions.

Terry Ryan mentioned in the presentation that she has been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Edward De Bono. I’ve heard of Dr. De Bono, but I am not that familiar with his work. Later in the day, I did get a chance to ask Terry which of his books she would suggest starting with. Terry recommended either his book on “Serious Creativity” or his original book on “Lateral Thinking.

Improve your lateral thinking skills

Brain teasers and other sorts of puzzles can be a great way to help you improve your lateral thinking and creative thinking skills. During her presentation, Terry gave us several of these to solve.

One egg in an egg cartonOne such puzzle was: “There are twelve eggs in a carton and twelve people in the room. Each person takes one egg. There is one egg left in the carton. How can this be?”

Can you think of an answer?

An answer might come to you immediately, or it may take you some thinking to figure it out. We were able to come up with several different answers during the lecture. I’m not going to include an answer here, because I do want to give you the chance to think it over a bit. (If you can’t figure it out, you can always send me an email.)

One thing to note here. I know many people who say they aren’t creative or they can’t think laterally, as if there is absolutely no hope. Lateral thinking and creativity CAN be improved with the right kind of practice.

Lateral thinking and creativity CAN be improved with practice. Click To Tweet

Improving the lateral thinking skills of your students

One reason I attended Terry’s presentation was that I was hoping for ideas that I could use with my own students – both my dog training clients and my undergraduate students at the university. During the presentation, Terry did share some games and puzzles that she uses in her group classes and seminars to help dog trainers practice their lateral thinking skills.

It’s sometimes easy for students to feel stuck, especially if they have a new dog or are new to dog training. Games and exercises in a class environment can help students improve their lateral thinking skills. These types of exercises are fun for students, but they also help students learn how to be problem solvers during actual situations they might encounter with their dogs.

Here’s one such class game that we brainstormed about during the session. Imagine you have two hula-hoops, about eight feet apart. There is a plastic bowling pin in one hula-hoop that must be knocked over. Your dog can go anywhere in the room, but you must remain standing in the other hula-hoop.

What could you do to get the bowling pin knocked over?

We came up with about ten solutions during the lecture, before Terry had us move on to the next part of the presentation. Take a few minutes right now and see how many ideas you can list.

During the presentation, we did this just as a lateral thinking exercise. However, in a group class setting, you could certainly actually have the students try to solve the challenge with their dog.

What’s the point of this exercise?

During another part of the presentation, Terry gave us another brainstorming exercise. Terry explained the figure-eight pattern exercise that is used in traditional dog obedience competitions. (Basically, the dog and handler must walk together in a figure-eight pattern around two cones.)

Our challenge was to name as many reasons as we could why this might be a helpful exercise to practice while working on leash walking either in a group class or with a private client. We came up with lots of different reasons!

I think this would be a fun brainstorming exercise to do with either other dog training instructors or with clients. Pick a training exercise and see how many benefits you can list for practicing that exercise. With other instructors, it may help you discover some new or unexpected benefits of certain training exercises. This may change the way you use a certain exercise in your class or how you explain it to your students.

Once students are somewhat familiar with a particular training exercise, you could also have the students brainstorm all of the benefits for the exercise. This may help students realize the importance of the exercise and feel more motivated to practice. Sometimes, I think it’s easy for students in group classes to be confused about certain exercises and not realize all the ways a particular exercise may benefit their dog.

Solving dog training problems with word associations

This was one of the last group exercises we did as part of the session. Terry started with a random word chart.

Random word chartAs a group, we picked a random word from it. The word we ended up with was “wheel.”

Our hypothetical client had a new dog that was urinating on the kitchen rug. The client had tried several typical solutions that are usually recommended to modify this behavior, with limited results.

Terry had us start with word associations. When you think of the word “wheel,” what immediately comes to mind? The group came up with quite a list, including round, wheel barrow, wheel of fortune, wagon, spokes, steel, heel, and plenty more.

Next, the group went in order through this list and tried to think of multiple solutions related to each of these words. Some of these were more typical solutions, others were pretty far out there. For example, one idea suggested was to use the wheel barrow as a baby gate to block access to the kitchen. Another person suggested picking up the dog any time he was about to go potty and using the wheel barrow to transport him outside. The point was to come up with lots of ideas, rather than being limited by what might actually work.

Even though some of these ideas were pretty weird, they helped us think of new and different ways to approach this behavior problem. Even if some of the solutions weren’t practical, they helped us think of new solutions that might actually work. Often in difficult cases, it takes a bit of outside-the-box thinking to find the optimal answer.

Further thinking and further reading

This was a fun ClickerExpo session, and there was lots more that Terry talked about during the session. Too much to try to fit here! However, I hope this post inspires you to think more about lateral thinking.

If you’re interested in using these concepts to improve your thinking skills and the thinking skills of your students, here are some helpful links to get you started.

Terry Ryan’s website and new Training Games book

Dr. Edward De Bono’s book on Serious Creativity or his book on Lateral Thinking

Dr. Robert Epstein’s Big Book of Creativity Games

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  • Ange Gresford

    I really had fun with these exercises, thinking of “different” answers to the questions. Thank you.

    • Hi Ange, I’m glad you enjoyed them! I am currently reading Dr. De Bono’s book, “Serious Creativity.” I’d like to post some more articles on my blog about creativity and lateral thinking in the coming weeks.

      • Ange Gresford

        Oh yes please do!