Be brave and seek out lateral solutions when trying to change behaviour

2nd June 2022 08:00

Written by Alex McCluckie, Research Director. Email Alex or comment on LinkedIn.

The Apache. The Comanche. The Sioux. Think of the Great Native American tribes and a certain image comes quickly to mind. Befeathered raiders of settlements, whooping as they display an unrivalled prowess from horseback with their bows and arrows.

In spite of this, most were actually footbound. There were, in fact, no horses whatsoever on the continent until the sixteenth century when the Spanish introduced them and even once they did, the natives were initially terrified of them having never laid eyes on such creatures before.

Slowly over time the tribes began to understand just how powerful an upgradehorses could be and the adoption of Spanish horse culture ushered in a great technological advancement. That’s why the tribes that were willing to fully utilise the horse gained great advantages as hunters, raiders and traders.

All because they were willing to look outside of their own lives and comfort zones and embrace a new solution completely alien to them at first.

Fast forward to the present day and the lessons from the great Comanches and their brethren are still to be found. In industry after industry, far too often when trying to change behaviour, businesses will often look to what others within their industry are doing and copy the playbook. They then wonder why their problems aren’t going away.

To those who have utilised lateral category analysis however (where you look to companies outside of your category to see if they’ve already cracked your problem or a similar one), some of the improvements have been astounding…

  • A UK Children’s Hospital back in the 90s wanted to reduce its error rate. Instead of speaking with internal colleagues or those from other hospitals about the best plan of attack, the team looked laterally and consulted with Formula 1 pit crew teams. By reviewing video of the hospital’s procedures as well as showing videos of their own manoeuvres, suggestions were able to be made that stemmed from their world. One such change was for the hospital to deploy a pit crew “lollipop man” (this is the person that holds a long sign that waves a driver through after ensuring the rest of the team has done their jobs) in order to give one person (the anaesthetist) overall responsibility for coordinating the team before handover. After changing its protocol, the hospital’s error rate dropped from 30% to 10%!
  • In 1989 Bengal tigers were proving depressingly successful at killing Indian villagers. It wasn’t until a student at Calcutta’s Science Club remembered that tigers only attacked when they believed they weren’t being watched. Thinking laterally, the student remembered that the patterns often found on beetles, butterflies and caterpillars resemble oversized eyes ostensibly in order to trick predators into thinking they’re being watched. This insight resulted in the design of a cheap rubber human face mask worn on the back of the villagers’ heads. The result – over the next three years, anyone killed by tigers during that time had either refused to wear the mask or had taken it off whilst working.


With incredible gains to be had, what’s not to like?

The problem with lateral thinking is that there is inherent risk involved. It isn’t safe, results aren’t guaranteed and you can be looked at as though you have lost your mind when you suggest a raft of laterally derived solutions. Indeed, spotting laterally derived solutions is one thing, but not being afraid of them when they present themselves is entirely another.

Like the Comanche though, we must be brave enough to attempt new, previously untested approaches because they have the potential to broaden out the solution set available to us and grow our behaviour change toolkits in the process.

I have written previously about how ignorance can be a blessing when attempting to generate ideas to change behaviour, but this must be coupled with an organisational mindset that will allow you to try ideas that will come from outside the realms of traditional expertise.

It takes a special type of person and organisation willing to experiment in such endeavours, but in adopting such a pioneering spirit lies the potential for behaviour change on an unimaginable scale.

It’s there, waiting to be discovered but you have to be willing to look.

Whatever your industry, to hear more about how your organisation can start to benefit from laterally derived solutions, get in touch with Alex McCluckie, Research Director, today –

Interesting reads

S. C. Gwynne, (2010). Empire of the Summer Moon. Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanche Tribe.

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