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Why Business Needs Riddles

Riddle: You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:

  1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.

  2. An old friend who once saved your life.

  3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.

Knowing that there can only be one passenger in your car, whom would you choose?

Read on for the answer.

Successful businesses have smart leaders who know how to solve problems. Certainly critics might question whether a particular decision was the right or smartest thing to do, but rarely will anyone question a leader’s actual IQ. Yet smart executives make some very ill considered (we’ll call them dumb) strategic errors that can cost even their business’ viability.

Many famous examples of bad business decisions center on new inventions. One such now infamous example is The Eastman Kodak company, legendary for developing the first digital camera in the 70’s, which they chose not to pursue for fear it would cannibalize their 90% market share of the film business. Equally infamous is Western Union’s documented response to Alexander Graham Bell when offered the patent rights for the telephone, “After careful consideration of your invention, while it is a very interesting novelty, we have come to the conclusion that it has no commercial possibilities… What use could this company make of an electrical toy?” Two years later, after the telephone began to take off, they realized the magnitude of their mistake, and spent years (unsuccessfully) challenging Bell’s patents.

How do these smart leaders make dumb decisions?

The solution is not greater intelligence. The solution is one of perspective and insight, whose function is not directly correlated with intelligence. What we are talking about is the difference between linear (or vertical) thinking and lateral thinking, which were described by Edward de Bono in 1970. Our society as a whole embraces and rewards vertical thinking very highly. Vertical thinking approaches problems by being selective, analytical, and sequential, and anything, which claims to use the scientific method, is also aligning itself with vertical thinking. Our deep, almost fanatical cultural bias is towards vertical thinking has made it the focus of our educational system, and thus, has trained our executive leadership in one particular style of problem solving. We see it as infallible, and more subtly, we have come to believe that there is only a single right solution, which is validated by external facts and data – and most notably, is primarily focused on avoiding failure.

Lateral thinking takes a completely different approach. It does not exclude vertical approaches, but involves using added intuition, risk taking, and imagination through unconscious and subconscious processes. In short, it allows there may be more than one solution, and often the decision can be made from internal guidance without requiring external data. This approach has proven emotional and success metric benefits when taught to young children, which include, but are not limited to:

  1. Achieving stability both socially and emotionally

  2. Developing physiological maturity at a younger age

  3. Limiting levels of anger and aggression

  4. Performing at a higher level in classrooms

  5. Improving personal and professional life

With a list like that, it would seem – intelligent – to encourage and reward greater lateral problem solving than vertical problem solving. But the riddle above is an example of a lateral thinking riddle that, unless you have heard it before (no cheating) you are likely to at least find yourself stumbling on.

What we are describing here is the creative process.

Lateral thinkers have an adept ability to recognize some very fundamental assumptions of which most people are not actively conscious. Riddles are the perfect puzzle to train, not only young children, but also adults seeking to build lateral thinking skills, how to break through old, unconscious, cultural assumptions that can blind them to possible, broader solutions. As with anything, new thoughts and behaviors require practice, and riddles provide exactly that – practice at thinking differently.

There is one other thing riddles provide that aids creativity, and that is laughter. We see business as deadly serious and life or death. We define our value and worth by our success in business. This inhibits our ability to problem-solve at the heightened, creative level that our very livelihood may require of us. Rarely do we find ourselves faced with the decision to hire or fire, to invest or divest, to acquire or retire – and also break into irrepressible peals of laughter. Yet, a lighter touch provides greater latitude for original ideas. Perhaps, in order to work smarter in business, what we need is a daily dose of riddles to break down old, limiting assumptions, providing inventive, and original solutions.

Solution: Who is the one passenger you fit in your car? The old lady of course! After helping the old lady into the car, you can give your keys to your friend, and wait with your perfect partner for the bus.

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