“It took 2 hours for two men to dig a hole 5 ft deep. How deep would it have been if 10 men had dug the hole for 2 hours?” The answer to Edward De Bono’s question may seem obvious (25 ft), but some minds may offer answers far from the obvious. How about, “Rain could flood the hole to prevent digging,” or “Deeper soil layers may be harder to dig out,” or “We may hit bedrock or the water table”?
Welcome to the world of lateral or out-of-the-box thinking, which is all about discarding the obvious, leaving traditional modes of thought behind, and throwing away preconceptions. Education is probably the most important tool to help students carve out a niche for themselves. But over time, this tool has become blunted with use, and carving a niche is no longer easy. Of the available options to carve out that niche, out-of-the-box thinking offers the greatest differentiation from the crowd.
The oil industry has had its share of innovative thinking that spawned everything from directional drilling to measurement while drilling to downhole oil/water separation. From the time of Col. Edwin Drake to today, the oil industry has witnessed a number of upheavals. Cable-tool drilling made way for rotary drilling, which in turn bowed to topdrive drilling. Conrad and Marcel Schlumberger changed the industry perspective with their downhole imaging tools. The iron roughneck made the drill floor a much safer and more comfortable place to work by reducing the amount of human intervention required in drilling. Multilaterals came to deal with multiple pay zones. For deepwater drilling and production, the artificial buoyant-seabed concept and floating production, storage, and offloading vessels were invented to reduce costs and allow the development of smaller reserves accumulations. The industry status quo has significantly improved because somebody approached problem solving differently from his/her predecessors. Lateral thinking often spearheads the development of new and emerging technologies. But, because legacy is a hard thing to replace, conventional practices still pervade.
Students preparing to enter the industry and eventually develop into the leaders who will drive the industry forward to its next great achievements need to widen their perspectives. Schools often emphasize vertical thinking. With vertical thinking, you move from one logical step to the next, always moving toward the correct answer. From kindergarten age, children are taught to be vertical thinkers. Vertical thinking selects a solution by excluding other solutions. Lateral thinking does not select but generates multiple paths to the solution. With lateral thinking, students seek to generate as many approaches as possible. Using lateral thinking opens students to creativity and insight. Ideas that might have been discarded are considered and developed into feasible concepts. Students who have better lateral-thinking skills attack problems differently and remove the artificial constraints that they had previously applied to problem solving.
Innovative techniques need to be created to develop supplies that will meet the world’s ever-increasing energy demand. It is now up to the students who will become the young professionals of tomorrow to start thinking laterally and break the shackles of tradition.
With competition over global energy resources reaching critical levels, having an edge over one’s competitor can turn the tables. Out-of-the-box thinking provides one such edge. Students need to realize that education is not the only path to glory. Lateral, or out-of-the-box, thinking has paved a way much less traveled. Go! Seek out your career.