As a kid, one of my favourite books was the series Two-Minute Mysteries by Donald Sobol, featuring the unflappable criminologist Dr. Haledjian. Sobol’s other famous books for kids – Encyclopedia Brown – never interested me. I’ll take murder, robbery and other serious crimes, thank you very much.
The series lived up to its name in that you could read the story in a few short minutes, but they were also long on mystery, secrecy, red herrings and devilish strangeness. A secondary character, Police Inspector Winters typically called in Haledjian to solve a baffling crime. Clues were often absent or, more likely, utterly contradictory. For example, a frozen body was found in a park on a hot summer day.
Sobol’s mini-episodes were a noir hybrid of storytelling and riddle. If the stories has a common denominator, it challenged the reader’s assumptions and preconceptions. Little did I realize these lateral thinking puzzles would be a brilliant introduction to problem-solving and creativity.
Like creativity, lateral thinking puzzles are inexact.
You are presented with miscellaneous pieces of information. To solve the puzzle – that is, the problem – you need to:
- Sift through important data, separating it from the chaff
- Ask questions, to confirm facts and challenge assumptions
- Re-arrange the facts
- Fill in the holes of knowledge or logic
In addition, you also need to be flexible, curious and open-minded.
Eventually, you have to make a hypothesis which gives you a potential solution. When played as a group, or when working independently, they are good as creative problem-solving exercises for workshops and brainstorms.
Here’s one of the most simple – if not famous – lateral thinking puzzles.
“The music stopped. She died. Explain.”
Here are five of the most common answers from my workshops.
#1. She was a blindfolded tightrope-walker. The music was her cue to step off. One day, the machine playing the music broke down. She stepped off too early and fell to her death.
#2. She was a spider on a chair in a game of musical chairs. When the music stopped, one of the children sat on her and squashed her.
#3. She was a blind swimmer, who swam out from her boat every day. She played a radio in her boat so she knew where to swim to at the end of the day. When the transmission cut out, she could no longer find her boat and drowned.
#4. She was a Radio DJ who was using work as an alibi to kill her husband. She played a long CD, then left the studio to hunt down her husband. Unfortunately, she took too long, and on the drive back to work she discovered that the CD had finished and the station was in complete silence. She then committed suicide to avoid the prison sentence.
#5. She was a spinning ballerina in a music box. When the box was closed, the music stopped and she “died” (i.e. stopped moving).
I’ve also used lateral thinking puzzles for more complex situations, such as crisis communications simulations. Here’s one I used for a real estate company in Melbourne.
Two staff members at the Golden Dragon Restaurant – located at water’s edge in the new Emerald Creek Shopping Centre – noticed this morning an unusually large number of dead fish in the ponds surrounding the restaurant. The water seemed both dark and an odour similar to sulphur. One of the staff members took a picture on their mobile phone, then uploaded the photo on Facebook with a humorous comment. In an hour, a reporter from the TV show ‘Seven Days’ calls for some information. What do you do?
The rest of the workshop we brainstormed how to handle the situation. Along the way, we also branched out into other situations until we had a complete set of guidelines to handle most situations.
If you love a good challenge, there are many websites and blogs about lateral thinking puzzles. Paul Sloane and Erwin Brecher are two authors who’ve written a number of books filled with challenging puzzles. In particular, I’m a big fan of Paul’s books. They’re clever and often funny too.
How else have you used lateral thinking puzzles in your workplace?