What Is Lateral Thinking? The Skill We Should All Have

A headshot of CareerFoundry tech writer Richard Greenan.

In both work and home life, problem-solving often follows repetitive, formulaic patterns and procedures. Not necessarily the best way to solve a problem by any means—just what we’re used to (or how we’re instructed).

These can be described as linear, non-creative problem-solving strategies. But what would happen if we began employing unfamiliar, unorthodox approaches to resolve the difficult situations we encounter?

Look no further than lateral thinking. 

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into lateral thinking, its history as a concept, and the nuts and bolts of exactly how it’s supposed to work. We’ll then examine how you can study this skill in-depth and detail how you can deploy lateral thinking to your advantage with various techniques.

Use this clickable menu below to zip through to a specific section:

  1. What is lateral thinking?
  2. How to use lateral thinking
  3. Closing Thoughts

1. What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves looking at a problem or situation from different perspectives and coming up with creative and unconventional solutions. 

It’s a type of thinking that encourages the use of imagination, creativity, and innovation to generate new ideas.

Lateral thinking is often contrasted with vertical thinking, which involves solving problems in a step-by-step, logical manner. 

Lateral thinking, on the other hand, involves breaking away from traditional patterns of thought and exploring new and unexpected connections between ideas.

Edward de Bono 

Like cutting pizza with scissors? Not at all. Rather than zany, “outside the box” strategies, lateral thinking represents something more scientific and methodical. 

The term “lateral thinking” was coined by Edward de Bono in his book The Use of Lateral Thinking, published in 1967. De Bono believed that lateral thinking could be taught and developed and that it could be applied to a wide range of fields, from business and science to art and literature.

According to de Bono, traditional thinking is often based on established patterns and rules, which can be limiting when generating new ideas. Conversely, lateral thinking involves breaking away from these patterns and investigating fresh avenues of thought. 

De Bono emphasized the importance of provocation in lateral thinking, which involves deliberately seeking out ideas that are unlikely or even absurd to stimulate new ways of thinking.

Six Thinking Hats

De Bono developed several techniques and tools to help individuals and teams practice lateral thinking. One of these is the “Six Thinking Hats” approach, which involves using different modes of thinking, represented by different colored hats, to explore a problem from different angles. 

The goal of the technique is to help individuals and teams think more thoroughly and systematically about a problem and to avoid getting stuck in one particular mode of thinking.

Here’s how the Six Thinking Hats approach should play out:

  1. White Hat: The white hat represents the perspective of objective facts and data. When wearing the white hat, individuals focus on gathering and analyzing information related to the problem or situation.
  2. Red Hat: The red hat represents the perspective of emotions and intuition. When wearing the red hat, individuals focus on how they feel about the problem or situation and explore their emotional reactions and gut instincts.
  3. Black Hat: The black hat represents the perspective of caution and critical thinking. When wearing the black hat, individuals focus on identifying potential risks and problems, and on identifying ways to mitigate or avoid them.
  4. Yellow Hat: The yellow hat represents the perspective of optimism and positivity. When wearing the yellow hat, individuals focus on identifying the potential benefits and opportunities associated with the problem or situation.
  5. Green Hat: The green hat represents the perspective of creativity and innovation. When wearing the green hat, individuals focus on generating new ideas and approaches to the problem or situation.
  6. Blue Hat: The blue hat represents the perspective of organization and facilitation. When wearing the blue hat, individuals focus on managing the thinking process itself, ensuring that all perspectives are heard and that the discussion remains focused and productive.

To use the Six Thinking Hats approach, individuals or teams may take turns “wearing” each hat and exploring the problem or situation from that particular perspective. 

By doing so, they can gain a more thorough understanding of the problem and generate a wider range of potential solutions. The technique can be used in a variety of settings, from business and organizational contexts to educational and personal settings.

The idea of imaginary hats acting as metaphors for different modes of work (and play) has since seeped into popular culture and the common workplace. This ubiquity is testament to the profound nature of lateral thinking and de Bono’s groundbreaking work.

Random word brainstorming

Another lateral thinking method developed by de Bono is “random word” brainstorming, which involves using a random word as a starting point for generating ideas.

The idea behind the technique is that by starting with a completely unrelated word, you can stimulate your brain to make new connections and associations that you might not have otherwise thought of.

Here’s how the technique works:

  1. Choose a random word: To start the process, choose a completely random word. This could be a word you find in a dictionary, a word generated by a random word generator, or even a word you hear someone say on the street.
  2. Associate the word with the problem: Once you have your random word, try to associate it with the problem or challenge you are trying to solve. Look for any connections or associations between the word and the problem.
  3. Brainstorm ideas: Using the random word as a starting point, brainstorm as many ideas as you can. Try to come up with ideas completely that are unrelated to the problem at hand, but that still somehow connect to the random word.
  4. Refine your ideas: Once you have a list of ideas, review and refine them. Look for any ideas that are particularly interesting or promising, and think about how you might be able to adapt or develop them to fit the problem you are trying to solve.

The random-word brainstorming technique is just one of many tools and techniques developed by Edward de Bono to promote lateral thinking and creativity.

By using this technique, you can break out of established patterns of thinking and come up with truly original ideas that might not have occurred to you otherwise.

Non-linear directions

Such brainstorming methods—also referred to as mind mapping, thought showering, or brainwriting—are prime examples of the non-linear thought patterns encouraged by lateral thinking exercises.

As mentioned previously, standard problem-solving takes shape as a linear, step-by-step thought process. This approach can be represented as:

  • To solve problem XYZ:
    • Complete step X
    • Complete step Y
    • Complete step Z

This is, of course, essential for solving problems such as doing the laundry or sending off your tax forms. But, as mentioned, if humans as a species never deviated from these linear patterns of thought, our scientific, technological, and cultural advancements would be hindered greatly. 

Lateral thinking represents a willingness to generate a large number of new ideas without worrying if they are good or not. This mass of material can then be sifted through to find the ideas that are the most promising. 

Allowing words or images to flow spontaneously is a technique common in a wide range of practices, from psychotherapy (word association, Rorschach diagrams, talk therapy) to the arts (automatic writing, spontaneous music, free painting), and marketing and technology (brainstorming, design sprints, SCAMPER).

These are all methods for accessing deeper levels of consciousness, and some may even be used in meditation or other contemplative practices. By this token, the origins of lateral thinking can be traced back to the 19th century, when automatic writing was used as a form of divination or spiritual communication. 

2. How to use lateral thinking

So far, what’s not to love? Lateral thinking seems to be a no-brainer for boosting creativity and innovation. The tricky part is, how do you incorporate lateral thinking into your existing workflow, practices, and daily routines? 

Below are some quick tips, followed by a couple of more detailed methods.

Lateral thinking tips

  1. Look for alternative perspectives: Try to see things from different perspectives. If you are facing a problem or challenge, consider how someone from a different background, culture, or profession might approach the issue.
  2. Use random prompts: Use a random word or image to generate new ideas or associations. For example, you could pick a word from a dictionary at random and try to come up with as many ideas as possible related to that word.
  3. Ask “What If” questions: Ask yourself “What If” questions to explore different scenarios and possibilities. For example, “What if I were to approach this problem from a completely different angle?” or “What if I were to consider the opposite of what I believe to be true?”
  4. Challenge assumptions: Be aware of your assumptions and challenge them. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it is the best or only way to do it. Consider alternative approaches and question the status quo.
  5. Practice combining ideas: Try combining ideas from different domains to come up with new solutions or products. For example, what if you combine a camera with a phone? This is how the smartphone was created.
  6. Play games that encourage lateral thinking: Many games can help you practice lateral thinking, such as puzzles, riddles, and word games.

By incorporating these strategies into your day-to-day life, you can develop your lateral thinking skills and become more creative and innovative in your approach to problem-solving and decision-making.

Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies is a set of cards or prompts created by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt in 1975. The cards are intended to help users break out of creative blocks or find new solutions to problems through a series of random or unexpected prompts.

Each card contains a cryptic or enigmatic phrase or instruction, such as “Honor thy error as a hidden intention” or “Repetition is a form of change”. The idea is to draw a card at random and use the phrase or instruction as a jumping-off point for creative thinking or problem-solving.

Eno and Schmidt developed the cards as a way to disrupt habitual thinking patterns and encourage users to approach problems in a more open-minded and exploratory way. The prompts are intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation, allowing users to bring their experiences and perspectives to the process.

Oblique Strategies has become a popular tool for artists, musicians, writers, and other creative professionals and has been used in a variety of contexts, from brainstorming sessions to individual creative projects. The prompts can be used to generate new ideas, overcome creative blocks, or challenge assumptions and biases.

There are several versions of Oblique Strategies available, including a physical deck of cards, a mobile app, and a website that generates a random prompt with each refresh.

Morning pages

Morning pages is a technique for freewriting that was popularized by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. The idea is to write three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing every morning as soon as you wake up.

The purpose of morning pages is to clear your mind, gain clarity, and unlock your creativity. By writing without censorship or judgment, you can tap into your subconscious mind and access new ideas and insights.

The rules for morning pages are simple: write whatever comes to mind without worrying about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Don’t stop to edit or revise; just keep writing until you have filled three pages. Write as quickly as possible without stopping to think or analyze what you are writing.

Morning pages can be a powerful tool for anyone looking to overcome creative blocks, reduce anxiety, or gain clarity and focus in their daily life. By getting your thoughts down on paper first thing in the morning, you can start your day with a clear mind and a sense of purpose.

Many people find that morning pages help them to identify patterns in their thinking and behavior, as well as clarify their goals and priorities. The practice can also be therapeutic, providing a safe space for self-expression and emotional release.

Overall, morning pages is a simple and effective tool for anyone looking to boost their creativity, reduce stress, or gain more clarity and focus in their daily life.

3. Closing thoughts

Stepping away from safe, procedural patterns of thought and execution is crucial to creativity and innovation. 

While Edward de Bono gave lateral thinking its name in 1967, the core technique—altering your state of mind to change one’s perspective—has its roots in various creative, philosophical, and religious customs. 

That said, you don’t need to be a philosopher or an artistic genius in order to give lateral thinking a whirl. If you feel stuck in a creative rut or fixed on rails at work, see if Oblique Strategies or morning pages cause a shift in perspective. 

Or, for the more laterally ambitious among you, why not honor Edward de Bono and organize your very own Six Thinking Hats workshop?

Above all, don’t be afraid to think differently, and don’t be afraid to fail. 

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