Lateral Thinking

Lateral Thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact. Lateral thinking was coined by Maltese psychologist Edward De Bono, who argued that the concept was useful in forcing business executives to think outside the box.[1]

Lateral Thinking

Key Elements of Lateral Thinking[2]
Lateral thinking is made up of a number of fundamental elements:

  • Check assumptions: all conventional ideas and concepts should be checked and reviewed, and this task should be done with a group of people with an open mind to deal with different environments and situations.
  • Asking the right questions: Lateral thinking is fuelled by asking the right questions to find the right solutions to the problem.
  • Creativity: this thinking is based on always finding another point of view because direct logic is not useful for solving certain problems.
  • Logical thinking: although this thinking is not traditional logical thinking, it is important to define a new logic and deduction based on reasoning. This thinking must be orderly, clear and concise so that everyone in the company can understand it.

Characteristics of Lateral Thinking[3]
Edward DeBono’s concepts of lateral thinking include the following characteristics:

  • The nature of thought should be provocative, non-sequential, and non-logical.
  • The process of lateral thinking should seek additional options, exploring unlikely paths, and does not have to be "correct."
  • The process of lateral thinking should attempt to escape from established patterns, labels, and classifications.
  • The results of lateral thinking are unpredictable and/or probabilistic.

Techniques of Lateral Thinking[4]
Edward de Bono proposed four techniques for lateral thinking: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

  • Awareness: De Bono thought we should first cultivate an awareness of how our minds process information. Resisting established patterns is the first step toward greater innovation.
  • Random stimulation: Exposure of randomness is an important part of lateral thinking. We normally try to shut out all distractions and focus with our minds on the task at hand, but de Bono argues that letting in a variety of information–by taking a walk, listening to a podcast, having a conversation with a stranger, taking a different route to work–can positively impact our problem-solving process.
  • Alternatives: The third technique is to deliberately consider alternative solutions. Maybe you’ve settled on what you think is the perfect answer to your dilemma, but de Bono encourages us to take a bit more time to think of other options. In his view, it’s the only way to truly consider the problem from all angles.
  • Alteration: Reversing the relationship between parts of a problem, going in the opposite direction of what’s implied, breaking patterns down into smaller pieces, and translating relationships into analogies and then translating them back are all examples of ways to cultivate an “alteration mindset” while problem solving.

A few other other strategies, according to Phil Lewis at Forbes, include transitional objects, jumping to the wrong answer, subtracting instead of adding, and telling a different story.

  • A transitional object is “someone or something embodying certain characteristics or qualities that you can use as inspiration for new ideas.” If you’re having team management problems at work, or student management problems in the classroom, you might look to a historical figure or activist for council (sometimes the mental shift you need to make can be found in the dusty pages of Seneca).
  • Jumping to the wrong answer means asking “What should we absolutely not do in this situation?” and then working backwards from there. In a way, it’s like a process of elimination exercise, and can actually be more efficient than beginning more conservatively.
  • Subtracting means doing a thought experiment where you imagine abandoning certain practices or asking others to do so. What would happen if you stopped doing A, B, C?
  • Telling a different story is about rearranging and reapplying the various parts of archetypal plots such as quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy, tragedy, overcoming the monster, and rags to riches. Try reframing where you’re at as a different part of the narrative and see what happens.

Examples of Lateral Thinking[5]
Today’s workplace has difficult problems to solve. Businesses need to grow and evolve while reducing overhead costs. People need to concentrate while working in more open and collaborative environments. Millennials have different expectations than other generations about how they need to work.

How do we solve these problems? Here are three examples of how lateral thinking helps provide the right answer:

  • Example: We need to reduce our real estate costs.
    • Conventional answer: Reduce the rentable square foot per desk ratio. Densify the space by shrinking office and cubicle sizes; doubling-up office occupants; reducing non-desk space like storage rooms, wasted hallway space, and meeting space.
    • Lateral Thinking: Reduce rentable square foot per person ratio.
    • Why? Today’s workspace is significantly more successful when it delivers more shared space, and less dedicated space. Desks sizes shrink, yet they are surrounded by new huddle rooms, enclaves, focus areas, work cafés, and other settings that best support the daily activities of the workforce. By introducing on-site mobility and desk sharing for mobile workers, the square foot per person will be significantly lower than a conventional, densified workplace.
  • Example: We need to increase concentration among employees.
    • Conventional answer: Raise cube panel heights, build more enclosed offices, install “Be Quiet” signs on the walls or introduce other similar behavioral policies.
    • Lateral Thinking: Lower panel heights, build quiet and small meeting settings.
    • Why? Lowering panel heights will increase awareness of co-worker proximity. Co-worker sensitivity lowers voice levels, and reduces inconsiderate work behaviors. Creating quiet rooms and focus spaces for onsite use gives people a way to escape noise and distractions without leaving their area. Providing small, nearby meeting areas is a way to enable conversations to move out of personal desk areas.
  • Example: We need to meet millennial expectations in the workplace in order to attract and retain top talent.
    • Conventional answer: Provide open desking, free food, and cutting-edge workplace design, including lots of expensive, high-end lighting and innovative imagery.
    • Lateral Thinking: Focus on global improvement and corporate social responsibility, social engagement & personal work/life integration.
    • Why? It is important to focus on elements that delight all generations, not just Gen Y/Millennials, and many people across all generations are focused on seeking positive workplace experiences today. Find ways throughout the workplace to display and communicate how the organization is making the world a better place. Train managers how to create a more social, community-rich environment rather than a competitive environment, and provide the tools and settings that support these behaviors. Introduce flexible work practices and mobile work support so employees, regardless of their age or position, can achieve better work/life integration. Stylish design and appealing amenities are still valuable, but they’re not the end-all-be-all in a healthy, productive workplace.

Vertical Thinking Vs. Lateral Thinking[6]
Vertical thinking is how most of us see the world. It is typically a structured process which looks for a defined answer through sequential steps. Each step must be relevant to the previous to move forward. The focus is on finding the correct answer and typically avoids creativity and experimentation. Vertical thinking is about analysis and judging ideas.

Lateral thinking compliments vertical thinking but avoids judging ideas; the focus is creating a large number of new ideas, good or bad. The focus is not on wrong or right, but focusing on the best solution. Lateral thinking provides the process for changing concepts and perceptions. This method forces you to break out of your comfort zone of what you only know and allows you to explore other possibilities to ensure the best idea is found. The goal is to move away from fixed pattern recognition that our brains love, and focus on movement and change. In addition, lateral thinking does not worry about the sequence of steps, just the development of alternative ideas.

Vertical thinking enhances the ideas generated by lateral thinking. When you dig a hole, vertical thinking will be used to dig the same hole deeper, whereas lateral thinking will be used to dig a hole in a different place. Most of us are born with this type of lateral thinking as children, but eventually lose it during school where strict adherence to following rules, focusing on the one right answer, and adopting negativity is the norm. Vertical thinking avoids negativity and brings our brains back to the process we all started with; inquisitiveness and creativity.

Using both vertical and lateral thinking is critical to identifying potential ideas for development. Use lateral thinking to develop a large number of new ideas. Then, use vertical thinking to help develop the best ideas. Lateral thinking for most adults has atrophied due to lack of use. Using the tools and techniques of lateral thinking will help you reawaken your creative thinking skills and help create amazing new products and services to outmaneuver competitors and continually wow customers.

Critical Thinking vs Lateral Thinking[7]
Critical thinking, as listed in the Oxford Dictionary as, paraphrased: To achieve a logical conclusion from information gained through observation, or deductive thought processes. To explain, it is the ability to analyze something critically, be it an art piece, a physical situation, or a written report, is to ignore the unneeded and discover the most important aspects, is a vital and much sought after skill to have. It is basically getting right to the core and issue in a straightforward approach, without too much hussle or bussle.

Lateral thinking, by contrast, is said to be “a way of solving a problem by using your imagination to find new ways of looking at it.” If critical thinking is getting right to the core of an issue, then lateral thinking is about getting around an issue, choosing to employ unexpected solutions to problems.

Critical thinking is about taking a step back without emotion to judge and evaluate an issue or problem, while Lateral thinking is all about using emotion and creative thinking to understand a problem.

Being distant vs being personal, the two, at first, appear to be like fire and water. Two different elements, two different ways of thinking. To put it in more blasé terms, it’s like looking at a blueprint vs going with your gut feeling about completing a project.

While they are two different methods of thinking, they do work well together. If lateral is how to get around, and critical is just getting right to it, shouldn’t they be at odds? Well, not really. Critical thinking is really about using gathered information to devise the most cost-effective solution, lateral thinking is primarily going around to gain new information. By this matter, they can assist each other, so it’s important to be skilled in both. That way, you can understand an issue or problem, and therefore devise the best possible solution for it.

An example of this would be found in many, many video games. In video games, a player often has to complete a puzzle, or engage in a combat situation, and in order to do so, they have to engage in both critical and lateral thinking. After all, to fight an enemy, you have to understand the way they move, or how much health they have left. To solve a puzzle, you have to start thinking outside the box to get to the desired outcome.

Benefits and Blind spots of Lateral Thinking[8]


  • Perspective: Lateral thinkers can see things that others can’t, which makes you an indispensable part of a team.
  • Invention: Lateral thinkers are likely to be high in creativity, leading to an innovative and groundbreaking work style.
  • Problem solver: With their ability to reframe challenges in different lights, Lateral Thinkers are highly skilled at seeing solutions hidden to others.

Blind spots

  • Indecision: With their skill of identifying multiple options comes an inability to choose a definite path. This could leave Lateral Thinkers in a state of indecision at times.
  • Rule-breaker: For Lateral Thinkers rebellion is admirable and romantic, until it’s not: breaking convention can be disruptive and can antagonize more conventional thinkers.
  • Heedless: Lateral thinking can breed adventurousness and daring, but occasionally steps over into recklessness if taken too far.

See Also


  1. Definition - What does Lateral Thinking mean? FourWeekMBA
  2. The key elements of lateral thinking and how to use them Softtek
  3. Characteristics of Lateral Thinking
  4. What are lateral thinking techniques? InformED
  5. Examples of Lateral Thinking Joel Ratekin
  6. Vertical Thinking Vs. Lateral Thinking Oventhal
  7. Critical Thinking vs Lateral Thinking Critical Thinking Secrets
  8. Benefits and Blind spots of Lateral Thinking Fingerprint for Success