Lateral thinking is an innovative method of solving problems using creative new approaches. It involves stepping back momentarily from a challenge and re-examining your preconceptions. Is there a different way of looking at this? Do the elements involved have meanings I haven’t considered?

Whether you’re rolling out a new product, distorting financial data, or simply abusing the drug-patent process, lateral thinking is an essential skill for the new economy. Try these exercises and open your mind to a fresh way of tackling problems.

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Q. Fred wants to go home but can’t because the man in the mask is waiting there, trying to stop him. What is the meaning of this?

A. The answer is simple: Fred is a baseball player! The “home” that he’s trying to enter is his houseboat. The man in the mask is an infectious-disease expert who quarantined the place after Fred’s wife died of avian flu.

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Q. An airplane crashes exactly on the border between Arizona and California. The two pilots and seven passengers are not identifiable in any way. How do public officials decide where to bury the survivors?

A. When you reread the question and realize it talks about burying “survivors,” the answer is obvious: Only the Mojave Desert is remote enough to prevent anyone from hearing the tormented screams as dirt is shoveled onto their faces.

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Q. A mother and her two young sons, John and Sam, pass a gumball machine in a shopping mall, and the boys both demand a gumball. The machine has three colors of gumballs: red, white, and green. John doesn’t care which color he gets; Sam demands only that he get the same color as his brother. The woman must commit her money to buy the gumballs all at once rather than one at a time. How many must she buy in order to guarantee the boys will be happy?

A. Two. An important part of lateral thinking is examining your false assumptions about the situation. With three colors in the machine, the natural instinct is to answer “four gumballs” as the only way to ensure both John and Sam are satisfied. But not if the boys are blind.

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Q. A man is found hanging by the neck dangling three feet off the ground in an otherwise empty, locked room. Under his feet is a puddle. What could explain this?

A. The answer is so obvious you probably skipped right over it: The man died of natural causes. As for the puddle on the floor—who knows? Maybe he was shedding tears about a wasted life. The guy’s entitled to some privacy.

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Q. A loving young father who has a devoted wife and four beautiful kids is killed in an accident. Yet when his loved ones receive news of the tragedy, no one in his family is overly saddened by his death. Why not?

A. They are devout “Christians” and are convinced they will be reunited with him in the future.

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Q. A nude man is found lying dead, face-down, in the desert. Near his outstretched hand is an unlit match.

A. This is getting depressing. Next.

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Q. A man rode into town on Friday. He stayed for three nights and then left on Friday. How is this possible?

A. I don’t know. I stopped watching Dragnet before it got this weird.

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Q. A family is happily eating dinner in their home. Suddenly the mother jumps to her feet, drags one of her daughters into another room, and slaps her face several times. They then return to the table as if nothing were wrong. A few minutes later, the father suddenly pulls out a pistol, points it at the son’s forehead, and screams that he’s going to kill him. He then sits back down calmly, the son actually thanks him, and dinner resumes.

A. What the hell? Man, that is one messed-up family.