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Problem with the Elevator

Edward deBono, the Oxford exponent of lateral thinking, suggests that when we can’t solve a problem using traditional methods, we should try “detours and reversals,” anything that will give us a different angle from which to ponder solutions. To illustrate, he tells this story about a problem faced by executives of a large company.

The company had moved into a new skyscraper and discovered that the builder apparently had not put in enough elevators.

Employees were disgruntled because there were over long waits for the elevators, especially at both ends of the working day.

The company got a wide cross-section of the staff together and asked them to sit down and solve the problem. The task force came up with four possible solutions:

1. Speed up the elevators, or arrange for them to stop at certain floors during rush periods.

2. Stagger working hours to reduce elevator demand at either end of the day.

3. Install mirrors around entrances to all elevators.

4. Drive a new elevator shaft through the building. Which solution would you have chosen'

According to Professor deBono, if you chose the first, second, or fourth solutions, then you are a “vertical” or traditional thinker. If you chose the third possibility, then you are a “lateral thinker.” The vertical thinker takes the narrow view; the lateral thinker has a broader view.

After some consideration, the company chose the third solution.

It worked.

“People became so preoccupied with looking at themselves (or surreptitiously at others),” said deBono, “that they no longer noticed the wait for the elevator. The problem was not so much the lack of elevators as the impatience of the employees.”

Bits & Pieces, August 22, 1991