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Those who follow PNM theory already know that Dr. Thomas Barnett is an advocate of Horizontal Thinking and dedicated a section of his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map, to that process which he entitled ” How I Learned to Think Horizontally”. Barnett credited this technique and outlook of mind with making him a global strategist and enabling him to develop PNM theory by seeing the interconnections.

Horizontal thinking is an extremely powerful tool. In fact, I will later argue in this series that it is the required catalyst for the generation of insight but Horizontal thinking alone won’t do it in terms of cognition. Instead, Horizintal Thinking works best in conjunction with
“traditional “Vertical Thinking the way your right hand works with your left. Or as creativity theorist Edward DeBono originally summarized the relationship:

” Some people are unhappy about lateral thinking because they feel it threatens the validity of vertical thinking. This is not so at all. The two processes are complementary, not antagonistic. Lateral thinking enhances the effectiveness of vertical thinking by offering it more to select from. Vertical thinking multiplies the effectiveness of lateral thinking by making good use of the ideas generated .” (1)

The unhappiness to which Dr. DeBono refers is a result of the nature of modern, Western, education which is designed, at the apex of the system, to develop people with rarified skill-sets and a very high degree of expertise, usually in an aspect of a subfield of a much larger discipline in say science, medicine, engineering or law. Practitioners take the broadest view when they are initially introduced to the general principles of their field but as their knowledge base deepens, vision narrows as the professional perspective shrinks to the most complex problem or leading edge of field knowledge.

At this stage there are relatively few people at this level with the competency to act as a peer or offer competing ideas or correct errors. The field’s Rule-set which includes principles as well as habits of mind becomes for the high-level practitioner, a two edged sword. They define the expert but they also create a psychological frame that screens out much vital data from the expert’s awareness – this is the educated incapacity phenomenon decribed by Herman Kahn. The expert actually becomes more efficient at ruling out possibilities, in light of the field’s Rule-set, than in generating them. A frustrating cognitive trap that John Boyd called ” paralysis by analysis” where all potential moves are seen to have so many downsides that they become less attractive choices than remaining still.

Horizontal thinking can get the expert out of that mental cul-de-sac by setting aside analysis in favor of synthesis, intuitive pattern recognition, suspension of judgment, reversing/challenging premises, counterfactual thought experiments and brainstorming alternatives. These exercises are intended specifically to get he expert to look outside the confines of their field and into others in search of parallels and analogies. An important first step toward the realization that the field Rule-set is a tool and not – as is usually the case with experts – something to be regarded as an end in itself.

In Part II we examine how using Vertical Thinking helps the horizontal thinker.

1. De Bono, Edward Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, p. 50, Harper Perennial, 1970

11 Responses to “”

  1. Stuart Berman Says:

    Great post!

    Another good example of interdisciplinary thinking is in the development of artificial neural networking (borrowed from Artificial Intelligence systems)and genetic algorithms (borrowed from evolutionary theory) within the field of data mining.

    Genetic algorithms are interesting because even though work began on them in the 1950’s (by biologists and computer scientists) and they showed themselves to be effective – they were not accepted by researchers until a solid theoretical framework was described by John Holland in the 1970’s.
    In essence, we know it works, but we don’t want to use it until we know why it works.

  2. VARepublicMan Says:

    The British economist E. F. Schumacher used the terms “convergent thinking” (vertical thinking) and “divergent thinking” (horizontal thinking) to explain the same processes. He was a bit more condecending to the convergent thinker but the plea to allow synthesis to advance the analysis is the same.

    Personally, I like the terms convergent and divergent because they illustrate the “narrowness” and “openness” of each style a bit better. Having said that I am intrigued by Dr. Barnett and PNM. I look forward to reading your posts.

  3. mark Says:


    That’s interesting that you brought interdisciplinarity up. A friend of mine is a particle physicist but the bulk of his consults these days tend to drift into biological and genetic field projects ( and engineering, esp. computers and nanotech). I hadn’t known that about neural networks.Apparently researchers must be trying to get out of their boxes. Good.


    I’m not surprised it was an economist who thought of that since by training they’re systemic thinkers. I’ll have to look up Schumacher on this- I’m glad you brought him to my attention. Thanks !

    Should have # 2 up late tonight or earlier tomrrow.

  4. Stuart Berman Says:

    Not sure what the difference is between horizontal and interdisciplinary thinking, if any…

    Another example is the adoption of Christopher Alexander’s ‘Pattern Languages’ (an architect) by the object oriented design community in computers.

    [hmmm… wonder if there is a library of examples?]

  5. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Stuart stole my thoughts, re: genetic algorithms and AI. grrr 🙂

    “Human Factors” research also combines psychology with computer science, but not to the same extent.

    -Dan tdaxp

  6. VARepublicMan Says:

    Mark and Stuart (and whomever else might be interested)

    Schumacher’s works are more philosophical in nature. He made some very strong statements about the myth of “economy of scale” and the modern methods of the valuing labor and material.

    Alexander, as an architect, deals more directly with space and environment.

    For the purposes of our discussion on “thinking”, you’ll be best served by readings about the men themselves. I thought I might point you all to wikipedia for starters.

    EF Schumacher
    A Guide for the Perplexed is good but I might recommend a biography of Schumacher by his daughter. The cite is on wikipedia and included here:
    Wood, Barbara, E. F. Schumacher: His Life and Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1984)
    Her book gives some interesting insights about what made Schumacher unique.

    Christopher Alexander
    A New Theory of Urban Design would be better than Pattern Language in learning about how Alexander thinks. But I am really interested in Alexander’s newest series titled The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe. I have not read it but it sounds like it solves some problems with Pattern Language. It also looks like it will discuss more about his theory methodology. Learning how great thinkers “discover” their theories is what I really want to know about!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Obviously both approaches have their benefits. One drawback of the horizontal approach that I have seen is forcing an analogy where one doesn’t exist, simply because it is “sexy” or currently acceptable thinking to use this approach. Horizontal thinking has the potential to yield breakthroughs in a given discipline but it is not what gets the day to day work done.


  8. mark Says:

    Abbreviated response because if I don’t grab some lunch soon, I won’t be eating until I get out of here….

    Barnabus should like Part II.

    Interdisciplinarity is different because it involves experts from different fields working together from their own vertical perspectives instead of one person looking across domains. In one sense, Stu is correct because a good interdisciplinary partnership will provoke horizontal thinking in the end.

    VA – I might have to do a follow up post after I digest the ideas of your sources. Much obliged ! :O)

  9. Stuart Berman Says:

    Dan – I pulled off the coup as a result of lying around in bed all day with the flu… I’m sure it won’t happen again 😉

    VA – You are right… Alexander’s Pattern Language provoked the software embrace by OO, but he recently ‘corrected’ some mistakes in his new work, I am looking forward to reading it and seeing if it affects the principles that were embraced ( a good description href=http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0321247140/ref=pd_sim_b_5/104-3827402-7330359?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance )

  10. VARepublicMan Says:

    Great cite Stuart!

    The biggest problem with Pattern Language is that it identified and quantified the results of forces without ever identifying the forces themselves. These patterns then became a cookbook for environmental designers. The error was that in order to truly use the patterns correctly, the designer had to be “tuned in” to the forces themselves in order to correctly choose and use the patterns presented. Alexander could do it and many of his direct apprentices could because they learned under Alexander himself. But many other desiners only produced formulaic nonsense. (Actually Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building were written by Alexander and a very talented team. Alexander always credits the team but the additional names often get lost in general discussion)

    Unfortunately, many other designers just could not correctly implement the patterns. Shalloway and Trott seem to be saying this when they say, “My mistake had been in trying to create the classes in my problem domain and then stitch them together to make a final system, a process which Alexander calls a particularly bad idea.”

    In your cite, it appears that both teams (Shalloway/Trott and Alexander/et al) have begun to mature in their understanding of the patterns and the forces behind the pattern. In the end, that’s what it is all about. Horizontal thinking to the nth degree!

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