Lateral Thinking for Conservation

One of the great difficulties in getting people to understand the absolute necessity for creativity and lateral thinking is that all good lateral solutions will appear logical in hindsight. So, if the solution is logical we don’t need lateral thinking only logical thinking. Right?


Lateral thinking allows us to change the way we perceive a given situation or issue by disrupting our usual way of perceiving it. Through this disruption we can begin to see new options and possibilities to help address an issue that we would not have otherwise considered.

The methods can throw our thinking into new and strange places we would not normally visit, and this in itself can be threatening to the thinker that relies solely on logic. It is because of this that the first port of call when we think laterally, is usually a place that can feel uncomfortable, strange or even a bit crazy. Unfortunately, this initial discomfort often proves to be too much for those that struggle beyond the linear.

The key thing to remember however is that from this “strange” place we can perceive the issue through a very different lens and start to generate new and novel ideas to address the issue. We all know the old sayings, from left field and outside the box, well unless you’re ready to actually jump into that field, or stray outside that box, you will rarely produce the new and novel ideas that our complex world now demands.

OK, we have been all theoretical to this point, so I’d now like to turn the concept of thinking laterally into real-life practice. To do this I’ll briefly describe some of the elephant conservation work using lateral thinking that we are currently undertaking across South East Asia.

First some very brief context. The numbers of Asian Elephants has diminished over the years from the 10’s of millions across Asia to a figure of around 30,000 or less. The reasons for this are many and include loss of natural habitat, hunting, reproductive issues and human/elephant conflict, which occurs when elephants decide they’d like to eat the crops of local villagers (and when a herd of wild elephants decide to eat your crop, you generally don’t argue.)

A future with Elephants (AFWE) is an action focused, conservation fund designing and applying experiments and projects to help save this highly intelligent and social creature from extinction. Some predict this extinction could be as soon as before the end of this century. With an initial focus on reducing human/elephant conflict, lateral thinking tools have been applied in the design of potential interventions.

The lateral approach initially applied was Provocation and Movement. With this approach we  ….

  1. Establish what it is we’re trying to do: Eg: Design an effective barrier that can be placed between the elephants and the village crops.
  2. We then discussed a range of factors, characteristics, descriptions, assumptions about things that may visually and physically deter an elephant.
  3. Having done this we then set up Provocations, i.e. deliberately provocative statements that are designed to push our thinking into new places and provide a stepping stone for a new and better ideas.
  4. Provocations commence with the word “Po” to clearly indicate the provocative nature of the statement, and in this instance one of our provocations was: “Po, we produce a barrier that is invisible to the elephant.”
  5. Now, this is a seemingly strange statement, however it did allow us to look at the problem from different perspectives and the resultant perspective shift has realised a current project in Sri Lanka where NFE are recording and experimenting with the sounds of naturally occurring hornets as a deterrent to the elephant crop raiding. (Every year an average 60 people and 200 elephants in Sri Lanka, alone are killed as a result of this type of Human/Elephant conflict. 200 out of a total population of 3000 is horrendous.)

A fairly logical way of potentially deterring elephants you may say, but it took lateral thinking to produce this “logical” option.

The team then took this new idea and applied another lateral approach known as Concept Extraction. In this approach we:

  1. Commence with a starting idea: i.e. “Use the sound of naturally occurring hornets to deter the approach of elephants.”
  2. We then extracted a concept that underpins that idea: i.e. the concept of using sound as a deterrent.
  3. The group then generated new ideas in which sound might be used to reduce crop raiding.
  4. One of the many new ideas that arose has resulted in a major ongoing project to “Record and playback different elephant vocalisations as a deterrent to crop raiding.”

While these projects are currently underway and in their early stages, there has been some promising results recorded. Again all quite logical but arrived at by lateral thinking!

The point to which I am laboriously making my way is that there is some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that we can no longer be so rigid in our thinking that we simply assume lateral thinking and creativity are not part of our “normal” business. As the world becomes increasingly, complex, connected and competitive we have an urgent need to dramatically increase our capacity to generate new ideas that will help us act with impact.

The good news is that you do not have to be a creative genius to think laterally. If you did, I wouldn’t be writing this now. You simply have to learn these powerful, process based tools and apply them to the areas in which you need new thinking, new options, new possibilities and new answers. In fact, why limit their application to problem areas, apply them to things that appear to going well, you’ll be surprised at the new potential they can shed light on.

(NB: Word just in from Sri Lanka (9:30pm 2/2/11) says that AFWE’s initial wild playback experiments have been completed and have achieved a 100% success rate at diverting elephants away from food sources.)

Share the Post

About the Author

Frank Connolly is the Principal of “Think Quick”, a business that adds value through thinking differently. His work history covers all sectors and includes initiatives that have yielded bottom line benefit in the 10’s of millions of dollars.

Frank has worked across Australia, South East Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa where he has trained and facilitated multiple thinking methods and been acknowledged by Edward de Bono as one of the foremost practitioners of the de Bono thinking methods worldwide.

Frank believes strongly that if we can improve the way we think, the actions that follow also improve.

Comments (4)

  1. Elijah Baley :

    A great example of the practical doing of something with these brilliant tools. Please keep us informed of any ongoing developments in this space.

  2. steve farrugia :

    Frank, a great example of the application of creative thinking tools

  3. Frank Connolly :

    Thanks Steve,
    Trust all is well at your end – time for another coffee?

  4. Martin :

    At last some rationality in our little debate.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *