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Exercises to Develop Creative Thinking - De Bono's AoTs for Lateral Thinking Part 3

The objective of this post is to introduce the concept of lateral thinking and to share four simple and fun exercises for creative thinking. The post is based on Edward De Bono's work. 

How thinking patterns are formed

Imagine a bed of nails, except that instead of nails we use pins with blunt heads and we lay a thin plastic film on the heads covering the entire bed.

Model of the mind - bed of nails with plastic film

Now imagine that we spray water on this surface. As you can imagine, because the film is laid on the pins loosely, water will start to collect in puddles. The puddles will form in arbitrary locations largely depending on luck.

Model of the mind - bed of nails with plastic film with puddles formed

It is not hard to see, that the next time we spray water on the surface it will gravitate towards the existing puddles, making those larger. As we repeat the process again and again, it will become harder and harder to form new puddles. Water will flow to the existing reservoirs.

Model of the mind - bed of nails with plastic film, with larger puddles

This is a simplified model of how our mind works. We are all born with a "dry plastic film". As we grow up the different experiences we encounter start to form patterns in our thinking. These patterns (thinking habits) are the puddles in the model. Once those patterns have formed and are engraved in our minds, it becomes harder and harder to think outside their boundaries (outside the box). When we are faced with a problem we will gravitate to certain solutions - thinking vertically so to say, digging deeper along an already formed pathway. In this model creativity is to think laterally, i.e. to deliberately create puddles outside the existing ones.

Model of the mind - bed of nails with plastic film, lateral thinking

To increase our creativity we need to find ways to facilitate the process of creating new puddles. One such way is to play with random words. Here are just a few such games you can play to exercise your lateral thinking muscle.

Group 8 random words

Select eight random words and find as many ways as possible to group them into two groups of four words. When doing the exercise, look for ways to group words based on their meaning not their form, i.e. a solution in which you sort the words in alphabetical order and take the first four in one group and the second four in the other does not count as a valid. A possible approach is to form sentences with the words. As a bonus you may try to create a logical connection between all 8 words.

Example: riddle, pillow, drapes, win, access, livestock, street, theism

  • Solution 1:
    • Group 1: theism, access, drapes, riddle: Theism gives access to god, like when the drapes split in the Temple when Jesus died, giving direct access to the holy of holies (Matthew 27:51)... and this solves the riddle :).
    • Group 2: pillow, win, livestock, street: Winning the pillow-fight by running around in the room like livestock on a busy street.
  • Solution 2:
    • Group 1: drapes, access, street, pillow: Drapes block access from the street to the room with the pillows.
    • Group 2: riddle, theism, win, livestock: In a competition to enhance the intelligence of livestock, people are making them solve riddles. Desperate, they abandon their scientific method and turn to theism by praying to win.
  • Solution 3:
    • Group 1: pillow, drapes, livestock, street: These are all actual objects you can touch and feel.
    • Group 2: riddle, win, access, theism: These are all concepts.

Find the unexpected solution to a problem

Think of a specific challenge that you want to solve, or an opportunity you want to seize, for which you are looking for creative ideas. Then select a random word. The objective is to generate new ideas to solve the challenge using the random word. 

You should not simply look for a link between the word and the problem. Use the word as inspiration. Similar to the previous game, it is not allowed to manipulate the words, e.g. to take its letters and form a new word, or find a way to transform the word into another word. Use the word as-is and resist the temptation to seek another random word should you feel unhappy with the first one. 

Relax, it is ok to spend a long time thinking, there is nothing wrong with not finding a solution quickly. When looking for the connection between the word and the challenge or opportunity, try to navigate based on values and principles not simple association.


  • Challenge / opportunity: How to find interesting topics for
  • Random word: interviewer
  • Ideas:
    • Find people in the thinking, note-taking, productivity, task management, business analysis, visual thinking domains. Interview them and record the result in blog posts. A special subclass of this idea is to interview authors of books in this space and include a book review along side the interview in the blog.
    • Interview is about dialogue. Find ways to trigger dialogue in form of comments around topics on the blog.
    • Interview is about asking another person. Use Twitter to seek input from the community on what people would be interested in reading about. Do research on those topics.
    • Use the interview style as a format for writing a blogpost. For example, ask questions from the "author" and answer based on thoughts expressed in the book (i.e. a virtual interview with the author)

Which is the odd one out?

Choose four random words. Prove that one of them is the odd one out and the others belong together. Don't use superficial or obvious reasoning such as number of characters in the word. Find as many solutions as you can. Ideally prove all four words out. 

Example: rocket-ship, gear, ballot, phosphate

  • Solution 1: Phosphate is the odd one out as it is the only chemical compound of the four.
  • Solution 2: Rocket-ship is the odd one out. Gear, ballot and phosphate are all several magnitudes smaller then a rocket-ship.
  • Solution 3: Ballot is the odd one out. On a space mission astronauts will not take ballots, but they fly with a rocket-ship, take all sorts of gear to space, and will take phosphate as part of their food and toothpaste.
  • Solution 4: I can't figure out why gear is the odd one out. If you have a solution share in the comments! 


Make two list of four words. Find a way to pair the words on the two lists. Explain your answer.


  • Group 1: holder, generator, basics, trance
  • Group 2: manacle, automation, waitress, portion
  • Solution 1 - pairs: 
    • Holder & waitress: The waitress is the holder of plates.
    • Trance & automation: When you are in the state of trance it is like a subconscious automation.
    • Basic & portion: If you have basic knowledge about a subject, you only know a portion of it.
    • Generator & manacle: In the past prisoners were manacled to treadmills to generate power.
  • Solution 2 - pairs:
    • Share in comments if you have another solution.

Generating random words has a service to generate arbitrary number of random words. Here are the links for the exercises above:

If you are using Roam Research, I have created a simple Roam42 SmartBlock to generate random words.
Animated gif showing the generation of random words

You first need to add the following short script under a {{[[roam/js]]}} block. Then copy the SmartBlock into your database. If you are unfamiliar with installing Roam42, I have a short video to explain its installation in my post: My Book Summaries in Roam Using Tiago's Progressive Summarization

Screenshot of SmartBlock and roam/js script

The {{[[roam/js]]}} block

The script

if (typeof window.words == 'undefined') {
	var s = document.createElement('script');
	s.type = "text/javascript";
   	s.src =  "";
	s.async = true;

Copy/paste this

- {{[[roam/js]]}}
    - ```javascript
if (typeof window.words == 'undefined') {
	var s = document.createElement('script');
	s.type = "text/javascript";
   	s.src =  "";
	s.async = true;

Random Noun SmartBlock

- #42SmartBlock random noun
    - <%J:```javascript
var c=prompt('How many random words do you need?',1);
var s = window.words.getRandomNoun();
for (i=1;i<c;i++) s = s + ', ' + window.words.getRandomNoun();
return s;```%>

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