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What is lateral thinking? 7 techniques to encourage creative ideas

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What is lateral thinking?

Why is lateral thinking important, how to improve lateral thinking: 7 techniques, benefits of lateral thinking, challenges of lateral thinking, rethink your problem-solving process.

When you feel comfortable in a routine, you might forget to think outside the box. 

Maybe you’ve been communicating with clients the same way for years, or you use the same meeting agenda template for every team. These processes could work, but they could also neglect to make space for innovation and new ideas. 

Adjusting your mindset can help you start a more open problem-solving process and drive innovation. This is what lateral thinking proposes. 

Lateral thinking means brainstorming creatively to solve problems and generate ideas without the limitations of logic-based critical thinking. Giving your teams the tools to get creative and embrace every new thought, no matter how out there it sounds, can help find inefficiencies and push your business into the future. 

Lateral thinking, sometimes called horizontal thinking or divergent thinking, is defined as an approach to problem-solving that strives for creative solutions rather than the most straightforward answer. Through spontaneous, free-flowing brainstorming, lateral thinking disrupts traditional step-by-step thinking patterns to develop as many varied creative ideas as possible. 

Psychologist Edward de Bono developed this concept in his 1967 book, The Use of Lateral Thinking. De Bono argued that the human brain has been trained to think “inside the box” and seek typical, predictable solutions, even if those aren’t the best options . He proposed lateral thinking as a new way to move past our cognitive biases and be more inventive.

Vertical thinking, the opposite of lateral thinking according to de Bono, is reason-based. You gather all available data and move sequentially from one step to the next until you reach a logical conclusion. This is what he says the human brain does naturally.

Lateral thinking instead combines imagination and intuition. You consciously try to generate ideas and scenarios that imagine uncertainties outside the information you already have. It places more importance on the ideas themselves and doesn’t dwell on the outcome until later. 

Despite their differences, vertical and lateral thinking can work together to make ideas the best they can be. Lateral thinking can stimulate more creative logic in vertical thinking, and vertical thinking fine-tunes lateral thinking’s big ideas.

Lateral thinking can increase adaptability and innovation in people who practice it. With new technologies like AI and shifting demands from the labor force, products, and processes can become outdated quickly, and new ways of thinking offer more ways to overcome potential problems.

According to a McKinsey poll of 200 organizations across several industries, 90% of executives believe that how they do business will fundamentally change between 2020 and 2025 . However, the same study found that only 21% of executives are prepared to create and embrace new growth opportunities .

Lateral thinking offers a framework for innovation that supports growth and change. It helps teams imagine the previously unimaginable and set themselves apart from the competition. Teams that can bring new perspectives to challenges will be more likely to stay with the curve and potentially create disruptive innovation that pushes the curve further ahead.

Lateral thinking might seem abstract and hard to implement. But adding steps to your brainstorming process can help you become more conscious of your th ought patterns, identify gaps, and think of creative ideas . Here are a few lateral thinking techniques to broaden your own and your team’s problem-solving skills.

1. Recognize thought patterns

Humans often get stuck in an anchoring bias : making judgments or decisions based on the first piece of information they receive. Vertical thinking encourages this bias because it builds on what you already have. As new data or ideas arrive, you stack them on top of the existing information instead of innovating.

But lateral thinkers are often more aware of their thought patterns, meaning they can better prevent biases and reorganize information.


You likely accept successful processes and services as unchangeable in your day-to-day professional life. If it’s not broken, why fix it? But asking why and how you use those processes, even when things are going well, is a common creative approach in lateral thinking to challenge ideas and break cognitive biases. 

Figuring out why you or your team does something a certain way requires you to deconstruct the process and examine each element. This naturally brings forward new ideas and helps you find barriers you didn’t even know were there. 

3. Consider all the alternatives

The logical outcome of problem-solving is to find the most efficient solution. Lateral thinking encourages you to purposefully set aside the “best” answer and brainstorm alternative approaches, regardless of how lofty they seem. 

Imagine you’re running into issues with an important spreadsheet. You’re constantly adding new information, the system is slowing down, and it’s harder to find things when you need them. You try adding more sheets and reorganizing the data, but that doesn’t quite work.

Lateral thinking could help you think of an entirely new solution, like switching to project management software instead of relying on one spreadsheet.

4. Invite external stimuli

You may know what work environment best suits your critical thinking and concentration skills . While a steady environment may help your focus, it might also put you in a comfort zone that limits your creativity. 

Find new stimuli that encourage lateral thinking, like playing music to concentrate differently, taking breaks in the middle of the day, or soliciting the opinion of a colleague from another department. Not every new method will be successful, but trying is part of innovating.

5. Reframe ideas

During a brainstorming session, you’ll likely come up with good ideas that seem too complicated or hard to implement. Lateral thinking encourages you to take these ideas seriously rather than immediately dismissing them. 

If you or your team think of a big idea, dedicate just a few minutes to discussing it. Examine your restrictions and ask what financial, operational, or time constraints create a barrier to entry. With that information, you can try to reformulate the idea from different perspectives until it becomes more viable.


6. Try random entry

When you feel stuck on a certain thinking pattern, random entry can shake things up and stimulate lateral thinking. Random entry introduces a random word or image to a brainstorming session. Even if it seems unrelated, try associating it with the problem at hand. The process of making those connections can help you come up with out-of-the-box ideas.

Imagine you’re a branding agency working on a rebrand for a coffee shop. The client doesn’t want to use the typical insignia like coffee beans or mugs. To provoke a new idea, you randomly select a word from the dictionary: “spine.” You map out different word associations to “spine” and end up creating a new brand based on the idea of coffee as a backbone. 

7. Mind mapping

Mind maps are a common brainstorming technique that helps teams visualize problems to find more expansive ideas. You begin with a central problem and break it into smaller pieces until you have a larger document with many ideas in one place.

Seeing everything together fosters more creative connections, and studies have shown that mind mapping helps people retain and develop information more effectively. Lateral thinking also has the potential to become disorganized with so many different ideas at play, and mind maps can avoid that problem by keeping everything in one place.

Lateral thinking skills give you the tools to be more creative and solve problems that you previously thought would stay problems. Here are a few more benefits of lateral thinking:


Offers fresh thoughts: Anything-goes brainstorming sessions have the potential to bring wild new ideas to the table. With lateral thinking, sometimes all it takes is a little refining to bring those unthinkable concepts into exciting solutions. 

Challenges assumptions: Lateral thinkers question their thought processes to distance themselves from the biases and linear thinking that limit creativity. Developing self-awareness about your problem-solving unlocks the potential to innovate. 

Builds new ways of thinking: Lateral thinking doesn’t just prompt you to seek new solutions. It teaches you that there are other ways to think through problems. Approaching a problem from a creative mindset can apply to other areas of work that require critical thinking, like negotiating a new salary , finding ways to increase employee engagement , or dealing with difficult people . 

Widens your focus: Breaking a problem into smaller parts and exploring them laterally helps you spot solutions without distraction. Looking at the whole of a problem can make you waste time jumping around from point to point, and focusing heavily on a single aspect at a time lets you dive deeper. 

Presents another way: “This is the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t mean that particular process is the best. Lateral thinking teaches you to challenge that idea and create alternative solutions for everything. The things that work well can work even better if you dissect them and find small ways to improve. 

Successful lateral thinking requires effort and experience. Thinking big can break you out of stale habits, but if your team can’t bring those ideas to a realistic action, you could create bigger problems than you started with. Here are some challenges of lateral thinking:


Indecision: Weaning down great ideas into a single solution may be difficult and time-consuming. Try including sound market research and other data in your process to find the decision with the biggest impact.

Reckless thinking: Lofty ideas are most helpful when you have the resources to back them up. If you don’t properly check with all stakeholders, you may run into problems along the way that bottleneck development or force you to toss it after dedicating precious time and money. 

Too much at once: You may be tempted to tackle too much and burn out your team. Successful change takes time. Roll it out slowly so you have space to review and refine new processes. 

Disruption: A culture of experimentation encourages employees to implement ideas that go outside the box. But without clear communication and realistic limitations, you could risk implementing new concepts that do more harm than good. Lateral thinking still requires analysis and planning. 

Understanding what lateral thinking is and how to use it can be a challenge. But giving your team the tools and freedom to think outside the box and pursue the roads less traveled will pay off in the end.

Lateral thinking leads to more creative collaboration and greater innovation. You could also uncover inefficiencies in your business you never knew were there. 

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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The only guide you'll need to create effective cascading goals, make the most of your time with the best time management tools, 9 project management (pm) tools that help you get the job done, how to develop critical thinking skills, how to create a work plan (with template), thinking outside the box: 8 ways to become a creative problem solver, critical thinking is the one skillset you can't afford not to master, effective negotiation tactics to level-up your career, similar articles, 8 brainstorming techniques to harness the power of teamwork, what is creative thinking and why does it matter, how to improve your creative skills for effective problem-solving, how divergent thinking can drive your creativity, 8 creative solutions to your most challenging problems, what’s convergent thinking how to be a better problem-solver, improvise, adapt, overcome: your how-to guide for an ever-changing world, stay connected with betterup, get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research..

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Lateral Thinking

What is lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking (horizontal thinking) is a form of ideation where designers approach problems by using reasoning that is disruptive or not immediately obvious. They use indirect and creative methods to think outside the box and see problems from radically new angles, gaining insights to help find innovative solutions.

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.” — Dr. Edward de Bono, Brain-training pioneer who devised lateral thinking 

See how lateral thinking can stretch towards powerful, “impossible” solutions:

  • Transcript loading…

Lateral Thinking helps Break Out of the Box

Many problems (e.g., mathematical ones) require the vertical, analytical, step-by-step approach we’re so familiar with. Called linear thinking , it’s based on logic, existing solutions and experience: You know where to start and what to do to reach a solution, like following a recipe. However, many design problems—particularly, wicked problems —are too complex for this critical path of reasoning. They may have several potential solutions. Also, they won’t offer clues; unless we realize our way of thinking is usually locked into a tight space and we need a completely different approach.

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

That’s where lateral thinking comes in – essentially thinking outside the box. “The box” refers to the apparent constraints of the design space and our limited perspective from habitually meeting problems head-on and linearly. Designers often don’t realize what their limitations are when considering problems – hence why lateral thinking is invaluable in (e.g.) the design thinking process. Rather than be trapped by logic and assumptions, you learn to stand back and use your imagination to see the big picture when you:

Focus on overlooked aspects of a situation/problem .

Challenge assumptions – to break free from traditional ways of understanding a problem/concept/solution.

Seek alternatives – not just alternative potential solutions, but alternative ways of thinking about problems .

When you do this, you tap into disruptive thinking and can turn an existing paradigm on its head. Notable examples include:

The mobile defibrillator and mobile coronary care – Instead of trying to resuscitate heart-attack victims once they’re in hospital, treat them at the scene .

Uber – Instead of investing in a fleet of taxicabs, have drivers use their own cars .

Rather than focus on channeling more resources into established solutions to improve them, these innovators assessed their problems creatively and uncovered game-changing (and life-changing) insights.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

How to Get Fresh Perspectives with Lateral Thinking 

For optimal results, use lateral thinking early in the divergent stages of ideation . You want to reframe the problem and:

Understand what’s constraining you and why .

Find new strategies to solutions and places/angles to start exploring .

Find the apparent edges of your design space and push beyond them – to reveal the bigger picture.

You can use various methods. A main approach is provocations : namely, to make deliberately false statements about an aspect of the problem/situation . This could be to question the norms through contradiction, distortion, reversal (i.e., of assumptions), wishful thinking or escapism , for example:

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

Here, we see the norm of conventional schooling challenged and some unpredictable (and even outrageous) notions to trigger our thinking. Our example showcases this method:

Bad Ideas – You think up as many bad or crazy ideas as possible, but these might have potentially good aspects (e.g., helping children specialize in desired subjects earlier). You also establish why bad aspects are bad (e.g., inserting biochips would be a gross violation of human rights).

Other helpful methods include:

Random Metaphors

Randomly pick an item near you or word from a dictionary and write down as many aspects/associations about it as possible. E.g., “Exhibition” – “visitors walk around enjoying paintings”; “learn about cultures”; “pleasant environment”.

Pretend some genius in your field told you this item/word is a good metaphor for your project. E.g., you can organize information, tips and images for your travel-related app to also act like an art/museum exhibition, so anyone can enjoy an interesting tour of a given location.

Use the metaphors you think of to improve your design/product. E.g., you create a captivating app which virtual tourists can enjoy with (e.g.) virtual reality features.

SCAMPER – To help generate ideas for new solutions, ask 7 different types of questions to help understand how you might innovate and improve existing products, services, concepts, etc. SCAMPER is remarkably easy to learn and efficient in ideation sessions.

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

Six Thinking Hats – To reach for alternative viewpoints, you examine problems from 6 perspectives, one at a time (e.g., white hat = focusing on available data; black hat = focusing on potentially negative outcomes). 

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

Overall, it’s important to stay aware of where ideation sessions are going. You may need to pause to redirect the group’s thinking or introduce a new trigger/provocation to help the creative process. Later, you use convergent thinking to isolate optimal solutions.

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

Learn More about Lateral Thinking

Take our Creativity course , featuring lateral thinking.

This thought-provoking Smashing Magazine blog explores l ateral thinking with more techniques .

Read one design team’s insightful account about lateral thinking .

Questions related to Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is changing your approach to solve problems or generate new ideas. Take Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ as an example of lateral thinking. It involves adopting different roles to approach problems. This video shows how to break free from your usual thinking patterns.

Imagine a person who is generally optimistic. Using the ' black hat ' approach, they could try looking at things negatively. This might help them find new, innovative solutions that they wouldn't have thought of. They can gain a better understanding of the situation by changing their perspective.

The four lateral thinking techniques are:

Provocation : This involves disrupting conventional thinking patterns with unusual ideas.

Challenge : The challenge is about questioning the status quo. It’s about looking at things as if they might be wrong, even if they seem right. This approach encourages deeper analysis and alternative viewpoints.

Random Entry : This technique generates new ideas using a random word or idea as a starting point. It creates connections that may not be immediately noticeable.

Alternatives : It focuses on shifting thinking patterns by exploring various directions and possibilities.

All these techniques encourage thinking outside the box and fostering creativity.

Lateral thinking and linear thinking are two distinct approaches to problem-solving. Linear thinking is sequential and logical. It follows a straight, step-by-step path that relies on data and analysis. It focuses on following the standard path of reasoning going along, as Alan Dix describes it. 

Lateral thinking is non-linear. It involves creativity and looking at problems from various angles. It’s about challenging assumptions and exploring unconventional solutions. 

Linear thinking concentrates on details and processes. Whereas lateral thinking emphasizes brainstorming and producing innovative ideas. Both are valuable, but they approach problems from different perspectives.

Yes, lateral thinking is a valuable skill. It's a problem-solving approach that stresses creative thinking. Unlike traditional linear thinking, it's about exploring diverse ideas. You can hone this skill through practice, challenging assumptions, making unexpected connections, and approaching problems from fresh angles. 

People skilled in lateral thinking are often adept at generating innovative solutions . Many fields, especially those requiring innovation and creativity, value this skill.

Lateral thinking often aligns with intelligence distinct from traditional measures like IQ. Intelligence manifests in various forms, and lateral thinking showcases creative, problem-solving intelligence. Lateral thinkers view things from unique perspectives. They create innovative ideas and link unrelated concepts. This ability marks an essential aspect of creative intelligence. 

This video discusses problem redefinition and negotiation in real-world scenarios. Traditional intelligence focuses on finding a single right solution using given information. But lateral thinking is like solving real-world problems. This approach holds significant value in fields that demand innovation and creative problem-solving. Here, Professor Alan Dix discusses 

While different from traditional logical thinking, lateral thinking has its logic. It’s not illogical or random. Instead, it follows a distinct reasoning that prioritizes creativity and innovation. Traditional logic is linear and sequential. It focuses on reaching conclusions based on existing knowledge and facts. 

Lateral thinking involves looking at problems from new angles and making unexpected connections. Lateral thinking is a creative way of problem-solving. It can help you find unique and practical solutions. Lateral thinking is a powerful tool when conventional logic doesn't work. Check out this video to learn about different types of creativity and what can get in the way of being creative.

  • Copyright holder: Bengt Oberger. Appearance time: 2:18 - 2:23 Copyright license and terms: CC-BY-SA-4.0 Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Margaret_Boden_01.JPG
  • Copyright holder: Niklas Morberg. Appearance time: 5:27 - 5:32 Copyright license and terms: CC BY-SA 2.0 Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/morberg/3231304833

Lateral thinking and brainstorming are similar yet different. Lateral thinking helps solve problems using creative and unconventional approaches. It breaks away from traditional methods.

Brainstorming is a group activity where people contribute ideas without judgment to solve a problem. It generates creative solutions.

Lateral thinking can be a solitary or group activity and it focuses on thinking differently. It's a specific approach to problem-solving that emphasizes creativity.

Lateral thinking is crucial because it fosters creativity and innovation. It allows you to explore new ideas and solutions that conventional, linear thinking might not reveal. Lateral thinking helps adapt to new challenges and situations. It encourages looking at problems from multiple perspectives. This leads to more comprehensive and sometimes unexpected solutions. This type of thinking is crucial in innovative fields like business, technology, and design. 

Lateral thinking breaks from traditional thought patterns and contributes to advancements and breakthroughs. It enhances problem-solving skills and promotes a more dynamic approach to challenges.

Yes, lateral thinking is a form of divergent thinking . Divergent thinking is about spontaneously generating diverse ideas or solutions to a problem. Lateral thinking, a term coined by Edward de Bono, is a specific kind of divergent thinking. It looks at problems from new and unusual angles and seeks innovative solutions outside conventions. 

Divergent thinking is a broader concept encompassing various methods of generating creative ideas. Lateral thinking focuses more on breaking conventional patterns and thinking beyond the norm. Both are key in creative processes, encouraging broad exploration of possibilities.

You can take the creativity course featuring lateral thinking to learn more about lateral thinking. This course would be a more in-depth and interactive way to learn. The course will also help develop your lateral thinking skills through practical applications.

Literature on Lateral Thinking

Here’s the entire UX literature on Lateral Thinking by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Lateral Thinking

Take a deep dive into Lateral Thinking with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .

The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.

We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods ―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.

Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative­ on demand . This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.

In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project” , you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

Your instructor is Alan Dix . He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume , your LinkedIn profile or your website .

All open-source articles on Lateral Thinking

Learn how to use the worst possible idea method.

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

Understand the Elements and Thinking Modes that Create Fruitful Ideation Sessions

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

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What Is Lateral Thinking? The Skill We Should All Have

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:

  • Edward de Bono

Six Thinking Hats

Random word brainstorming, non-linear directions, lateral thinking tips, oblique strategies, morning pages.

  • 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.

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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:

  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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. 

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy these: 

  • What Is the Design Thinking Process? The 5 Steps Complete Guide
  • Which Tech Career Path Is Right For Me? [2023 Guide]
  • How to Apply Design Thinking to Wicked Problems

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Lateral Thinking

Thinking outside the box

Lateral thinking is the mental process of generating ideas and solving problems by looking at a situation from a unique or different perspective.  This type of thinking involves breaking away from traditional modes of thinking and discarding established patterns and preconceived notions.

By using unconventional thinking techniques, lateral thinking enables you to find innovative solutions that you may otherwise not even consider.

Lateral Analtical Thinking

About Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a term coined by Edward De Bono in 1967 in his book New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking in the Generation of New Ideas . De Bono explained typical problem solving techniques involve a linear, step-by-step approach. He believes a more creative solutions can be obtained by taking a step sideways to look at a situation or problem from an entirely different viewpoint.

A Different Mode of Thinking

Lateral thinking is different from other standard modes of thinking and problem solving.  It lies between vertical thinking (classic step-by-step method of problem solving) and brainstorming.

Vertical thinking involves working out the solution step-by-step from the given data. Brainstorming is about generating many ideas, but not being concerned with the detailed implementation of them.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is similar to brainstorming in that it involves deliberately going outside of the standard bounded thought process. However, unlike brainstorming, it still uses a systematic process that leads to logical conclusions.

It is like vertical thinking in that it is a uses a systematic process that leads to logical conclusions. However, unlike vertical thinking, it involves changing a standard thinking sequence and arriving at the solution from completely different angles.

Lateral vs. Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking uses the processes of logic. Vertical thinking is analytical, sequenced, deliberate, and precise. It involves taking the data from a problem and analyzing it with defined methodologies to find logical solutions.

Lateral thinking involves using reasoning that is not straightforward and obvious. It involves generating ideas that are often not obtainable using just traditional step-by-step logic.

Analytical vs. Lateral Thinking

Four Principles

The theory behind lateral thinking is that many problems require a different perspective in order to successfully solve them. It focuses on what could be rather than what is possible or likely. To accomplish this, De Bono identified four principles to guide you through the thinking process:

  • Recognize the dominant ideas that polarize the perception of a problem.
  • Search for different ways of looking at things.
  • Relax the strict control applied to the rational-logical (vertical) thinking.
  • Use chance to encourage other ideas

Related Links

Creative Thinking Process

Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Analytical Thinking

Lateral Thinking Techniques


Types of Thinking

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

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Critical, Lateral, & Creative Thinking

Lateral & creative thinking, introduction.

Lateral and creative thinking work hand-in-hand with critical thinking as we solve problems.  Lateral thinking offers a somewhat structured way to generate new ideas, while creative thinking opens the door to all possibilities.  While critical thinking is needed in identifying and starting to solve problems, lateral and creative thinking help generate multiple, different, and often unexpected solutions.

Lateral Thinking

One way to deal with assumptions and problem-solving is to develop your lateral thinking skills. Lateral thinking includes a conscious generation of alternative solutions, and a conscious questioning of assumptions.

Read the article on Lateral Thinking Skills and watch the following video on lateral thinking.

How can we think laterally, when our brains are programmed to think in terms of patterns and linear movement from point A to point B?  Play on that proclivity for patterns and apply a pattern to help you think outside of the box.

  • On a sheet of paper, make three columns.  Title the first “positives,” the second “negatives,” and the third “interesting.”
  • List out the positives, the negatives, and what’s interesting about the following situation: What if all cars were painted yellow?  What would be positive, negative and interesting about this situation?

Critical and Lateral Thinking are about being proactive in identifying assumptions and biases, and about using reasoning and your own insights to make decisions. Lateral thinking actually bridges critical and creative thinking, and provides an additional way in which we can consider information.

What is a problem that you have in your life right now that you can use lateral thinking to solve? Create a chart with the positives, negatives and interesting points for yourself.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking helps you solve problems in unexpected or new ways.

Read the article on What is Creative Thinking? and view the videos below for a fuller definition of creative thinking.

One really interesting example of creative thinking deals with a solution to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients wandering off. You can listen to a podcast explaining this creative solution, or read the text of the podcast on the page entitled  The Bus Stop . Then read a reflection on this solution from a medical student in the blog post, A Wait for the Bus .

initial activity

Apply lateral and creative thinking to the scenario in the following video:

  Training Video: When the Phone Rings. (Example of poor receptionist skills.)

After viewing the video, apply lateral and creative thinking skills to the situation.  Put yourself in the role of supervisor of this employee, the woman who left at the start of the video.  The boss mentioned to you the assistant’s lack of appropriate protocol in taking messages and his need to apologize to the client. You need to relay the information to the assistant so that it does not happen again.  Instead of simply focusing on the negative and giving her a rebuke, consider the positive and interesting aspects of this employee and the situation (you’ve already identified the negative). How can you use the positive and interesting aspects of the employee’s behavior to help her develop into a stronger administrative professional?  More generally, what creative actions can you take to train newer employees and ensure that a situation like this does not happen again?

Write a brief analysis (3-4 pages) applying lateral and creative thinking skills to this situation.

Submit: analysis

in-depth activity

Choose one of the following options.

Read the article “ Your Brain on Creativity ” from Psychology Today .

Apply lateral and creative thinking concepts to consider how the information in this article might be presented in an alternative, perhaps divergent way.  Then create that presentation, to represent the main ideas from the article in another way.

Submit: the presentation

Identify a problem at work or with a community group.  Apply concepts and strategies of lateral and creative thinking, and generate at least 4 potential alternative solutions to the problem, solutions that are not the obvious ones, solutions that are “outside the box.”

Submit: a written proposal offering these solutions.  Include the following sections in the proposal:

  • statement of problem
  • discussion of why the obvious solution is not the best
  • presentation of alternative solutions with reasons why they are better than the obvious solution

interested in learning more about creative thinking?

You may want to read a relatively short book chapter on Creative Approaches to Problem Solving .

You may want to consider taking courses in:

  • Creativity Across the Disciplines
  • Creativity in the World Around Us
  • Psychology of Creativity

Related college Learning Goals

Communication: Express and receive ideas effectively, in multiple contexts and through multiple strategies.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Evaluate, analyze, synthesize and critique key concepts and experiences, and apply diverse perspectives to find creative solutions to problems concerning human behavior, society and the natural world.

For more information, see the College Learning Goals Policy .

  • Lateral & Creative Thinking. Authored by : Susan Oaks; adapted from team work by Nan Travers (lead), Cathy Davison, Elaine Handley, Linda Jones, Jessica Kindred, Gohar Marikyan, Lynette Nickleberry, Susan Oaks, Eileen O'Connor. Project : Educational Planning. License : CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial
  • video Lateral Thinking: Generate Brilliant Ideas. Authored by : Blahzinga. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxbB0DAlx7c . License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • video Trick Your Mind into Being Creative. Authored by : Aadil Vora. Provided by : Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xWa3Ok2e94 . Project : TEDx Talks. License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video
  • video Tina Seelig: Challenge Assumptions. Authored by : Tina Seelig. Provided by : Stanford eCorner, Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mp-Jj6BBkzM . Project : TEDx Talks. License : Other . License Terms : YouTube video

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Thinking in Different Directions

A few days ago, we were having our weekly case conference and we saw a patient with an interesting intracranial lesion. I asked a resident to look at the clinical record and find out what the discharge diagnosis was. He then proceeded to inform me that it was a meningioma. “How do they know if they have not biopsied it?” I asked. After much searching, our trainee found out that the neurosurgeons had used our initial impression as the final diagnosis, and slowly we had all begun to assume that this was indeed the confirmed diagnosis and kept quoting it on our own reports. This is an example of thinking that begins and ends with an assumption (often wrong), also known as circular or paradoxical thinking and in logic called a “logical fallacy.” 1 It is my impression that in imaging and in medicine in general, we spend a considerable amount of time engaged in this type of reasoning and that this process is more common now than in the past, perhaps because of the repetition (“cutting and pasting”) that is found in patient medical records. In circular thinking, a conclusion cannot be proved false or true if it arose from a false premise. Because repeating a statement in circular fashion seems to make it stronger, circular thinking ends by creating statements that sound true and gain wide support (thus, the above-mentioned patient now carries a diagnosis of “meningioma”). There is no doubt that circular thinking is dangerous and that we must do our best to avoid it.

The opposite of circular thinking is linear (vertical) thinking. In this type of reasoning, progress is made in a step-by-step fashion and a response to each step must exist before advancing to the next one. Although linear thinking advances by logic, it is by its own nature highly focused on single pathways and as such tends to ignore other possibilities and alternatives. Linear thinking is basically a binary process in which answers are “Yes” or “No” (correct or incorrect), excluding all considerations beyond these 2 responses. These features make it fast, organized, and sequential and therefore it is the most common type of thought process used. 2 People generally regard linear thinking as an honest, mature, and intelligent process when in reality it lacks ingenuity, innovation, and originality. Similar to circular thinking, linear thinking is characterized by repetition and is, in the long term, detrimental to intellectual advancement.

Where linear thinking is a “safe” process, a third type of reasoning called lateral (horizontal) thinking is risky, uneven, adventurous, more difficult, and not widely accepted. Lateral thinking views a problem from multiple perspectives, many of them random. Because lateral thinking is based on discovery and exploration of spontaneous events, it is the opposite of linear thinking: slow, disorganized, and nonsequential. Lateral thinking teeters close to the edge of disaster because it is greatly affected by luck and chance and may easily turn into chaos. Most individuals are not organized enough to use it and rapidly become overwhelmed by the choices it offers. The brightest individuals know when to use vertical and lateral thinking and avoid circular reasoning. In popular culture, linear thinking is linked to men while lateral thinking is linked to women.

Howard E. Gardner, a world-famous professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, formulated the concept of multiple intelligences. 3 We humans have different ways of learning and processing information and thus we are different and independent from each other. Although those who favor this concept oppose the idea of a “general intelligence factor,” it is likely that all individuals share both, that is, they are smart as individuals but also share a collective intelligence that makes them similar to all other human beings. Dr. Gardner has separated intelligence into the following categories: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthesic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and possibly existential (after much thinking I have come to the conclusion that there must be others because I believe I do not possess any of these!). However, I agree with him when he states that education (not only in America but worldwide) is based mostly on logical (mathematics) and linguistic (language arts) intelligence and that current methods for assessing intelligence (such as IQ tests) measure only these 2 features. This brings up the inadequacy of the current schooling systems that disregard other types of intelligence. Most current education (and research) depends on mainly linear thinking.

A fascinating endeavor that encourages folks to express their different intelligences and to think laterally is TED.com (TED stands for: technology, entertainment, design). This nonprofit organization that was started in 1984 contains more than 1400 (as of this writing) varied and exciting conferences by some of the world's smartest and most diverse and laterally thinking individuals. For a fantastic account of how it works, I suggest reading Nathan Heller's article in The New Yorker titled “List and Learn.” 4 The most viewed TED conference (more than 15 million times) is one given by British education specialist Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 (a newer one was posted in May 2010 and has been viewed nearly 4 million times). 5 Robinson argues that university professors educate students to become, well… university professors in a process so linear that it kills all creativity and discourages many students from exploring alternative avenues. He also calls attention to the ever-diminishing value of education degrees (and those of us who live in university towns know that sometimes all that a PhD gets you is a better waitressing job). The rigidity of school systems that are based on mathematics and linguistics results in linear thinking stifling the creativity associated with lateral thinking and is thus harmful to society.

In an article in The New York Times , 6 Andrew Hacker explains why more than one-third of high school students fail algebra and states that difficulty with mathematics may be responsible for up to 45% of high school dropouts in the United States. Aptitude tests such as the American SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the ACT (American College Testing) concentrate in measuring 2 subjects: mathematics and linguistics (the pillars of linear thinking, as stated previously). Mr. Hacker proposes that perhaps just basic algebra and what he astutely calls “citizen statistics” may be enough for most us, whereas more advanced courses such as calculus should be reserved for fewer, gifted individuals who seek careers that depend on the understanding of higher mathematics. As Sir Ken Robinson states, “We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Does studying liberal arts and the humanities make us better physicians? I believe it does. I have been unable to notice any differences with respect to knowledge of biologic sciences in our daily work between residents who come from a “hard” science background and those with a liberal arts education, and I find that personally I like the latter better. Medical schools are aware of this, and some such as Boston University and Brown University encourage this type of liberal arts curriculum and reserve a number of places in their medical schools for these individuals. More than 40% of medical students at the University of Pennsylvania come from non-premed backgrounds. 7 The liberal arts may also be useful to medical students, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York has a specific humanities and medicine program. The separation of liberal arts from sciences is, in my opinion, damaging and ends up suppressing the human qualities of many excellent and caring young individuals. Because liberal arts are characterized by lateral thinking, bringing these individuals into our world of linear thinking will prove to be beneficial for all.

I am not aware of imaging methods having been used to study these different types of thinking. There are, however, several principles that control all human thought processes. 8 A basic principle of thinking is that it is the product of concurrent brain activity in multiple regions that together form a large-scale cortical network. This is a type of functional connectivity that has been documented in thousands of fMRI reports. Also, each cortical region can perform multiple functions, and these same functions can also be performed by different regions, an observation that may explain thought (and function) plasticity. Rather than a strict linear or vertical organization, the brain prefers a lateral or horizontal organization that serves as its own backup and redundant system. Unfortunately, each cortical region can only do so much and thus has a limited capacity. Conversely, these constraints force other parts of the brain to collaborate, and this helps it adapt to many situations. The topologies of large-scale networks are in constant flux, adapting themselves to the demands of tasks. The brain is not dumb: it uses the minimum amount of resources needed for each activity, but, if one network becomes insufficient, additional ones are immediately recruited. The brain's topology has 2 components: membership and connectivity, and both are in constant flux. Just as the Internet does, the brain also has a limited bandwidth, resulting in a finite amount of resources that it can use. This bandwidth, up to a certain extent, varies from individual to individual and thus some are more successful in multitasking than others. Increased brain bandwidth seems to be connected to lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking is important and is not used sufficiently in the sciences, but this is beginning to change. Of course, we radiologists can take it to a silly extreme, as seen in a recent advertisement that intended to recruit a lateral-thinking technologist for a vertical MR imaging (upright) scanner! 9 Radiologists actually think dimensionally, and 2D and 3D processes play an important role in the interpretation of images in which it all begins as the former and ends as the latter. I like to think of this as a process that also begins vertically and then branches horizontally. Some of our trainees have more trouble making this transition and thus take longer to learn the specialty. It is possible that some may survive and graduate not being able to think 3-dimensionally, but they will never survive if they think circularly.

Rick Pastoor

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Analytical, lateral and critical thinking

Aug 3, 2016

In my Strategic Thinking Week , some time ago, one of the posts was titled be hypercritical . Still interesting, in case you missed it. In today’s post I want to look at a three step approach to thinking, which builds towards being hypercritical: analytical, lateral and strategic thinking.

Analytical thinking focuses on facts and evidence. In order to solve problems, one should have the strength and ability to pull apart data and break down facts. Another big part of analytical thinking involves systematic rejection of unacceptable alternatives.

Lateral thinking is a more creative approach, where one needs to have the ability to think outside the box and come up with solutions that do not follow a step by step plan. Where an analytical approach is looking at what’s there, the lateral approach focusses on what’s not there.

Critical thinking is giving weight at everything that’s discovered in the steps above. It is about weighing all the options and forming a solid opinion. Critical thinking is always putting all the given data to the test in order to check if it is current and accurate.

These three have a lot in common, but their approach is very different at the same time. In order to solve complex questions, follow the three steps: analyze the data available, try to look at what is not there and finally form your own sound opinion by looking critically at everything you have.



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Home » What Is Lateral Thinking? Definition and Examples

What Is Lateral Thinking? Definition and Examples

June 15, 2023 max 5min read.

Lateral Thinking

This article covers:

What Is Lateral Thinking?

Benefits of lateral thinking, techniques and strategies for lateral thinking, real-life examples of lateral thinking, tips for developing lateral thinking skills.

Step into the world where imagination knows no bounds, where thinking outside the box takes center stage. Welcome to the kingdom of lateral thinking! It’s a place where creativity and logic intertwine and where the extraordinary thrives. Here, we celebrate unconventional ideas and embrace innovation. Open your mind to new possibilities, explore uncharted territories of thought, and let your imagination soar.

We will cover what lateral thinking means, various techniques and strategies, Benefits, and tips to develop your lateral thinking skills. 

Lateral thinking definition :

Lateral thinking promotes the exploration of alternative possibilities, connections, and solutions. It involves thinking beyond the obvious. In contrast, it considers multiple viewpoints to arrive at unexpected and innovative solutions.

Lateral thinking was coined by Maltese physician and author Edward de Bono in his book “ The Use of Lateral Thinking ,” published in 1967. It refers to a problem-solving approach that involves looking at a situation or challenge from varied perspectives or unconventional angles. The goal of lateral thinking is to break free from traditional linear thinking patterns. The focus is mainly on generating creative and innovative ideas.

Edward de Bono developed lateral thinking as a deliberate technique to enhance creativity and problem-solving abilities. He believed that traditional thinking methods often restrict the range of solutions. They do that by imposing rigid constraints or patterns. Lateral thinking aims to overcome these limitations. It fosters new ideas through random word associations, provocation, and challenging assumptions.

Here are some benefits of lateral thinking:

Creativity and Innovation

Lateral thinking enhances creative thinking skills. This happens mainly by encouraging individuals to explore alternative perspectives and unconventional ideas. It promotes innovative solutions and enables individuals to think outside the box.


Lateral thinking helps overcome mental blocks and encourages individuals to approach problems differently. It allows for considering multiple viewpoints and exploring various solutions. All of that leads to more effective problem-solving outcomes.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Lateral thinking cultivates mental flexibility. This enables individuals to adapt to changing situations and find new approaches when faced with challenges. It encourages open-mindedness and the willingness to explore different possibilities. All these skills are precious in today’s rapidly evolving world.

Improved Decision Making

By considering a wider range of options and perspectives, lateral thinking enables individuals to make more informed and well-rounded decisions. It helps to uncover hidden opportunities and risks. All of which you may have overlooked through traditional thinking approaches.

Here are some techniques and strategies commonly used in lateral thinking:

Random Stimulation

This technique introduces random and unrelated elements to stimulate creative thinking. It can include activities such as brainstorming unrelated ideas or drawing connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

Provocative Questions

Asking unconventional and thought-provoking questions is of utmost importance. It can challenge existing assumptions and encourage innovative thinking. These questions push individuals to explore different angles and generate new ideas.

Reverse Thinking

It involves flipping a problem or situation upside down. After that, consider it from a reverse perspective. By reversing assumptions or perspectives, new insights and possibilities can emerge.

Analogy and Metaphor

Using analogies and metaphors can help create connections between unrelated concepts. This leads to fresh insights and innovative solutions. Relating a problem to something entirely different can reveal hidden patterns or possibilities.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual technique to bring together thoughts and ideas. It involves creating a diagram that links various ideas and concepts together. Mind maps encourage non-linear thinking. It also helps explore different associations and connections.

Six Thinking Hats

The Six Thinking Hats technique, developed by Edward de Bono , assigns different “hats” to participants. Each hat represents a different thinking style or perspective. The hats include white (objective information), red (emotions and intuition), black (caution and critical thinking), yellow (optimism and benefits), green (creative and alternative thinking), and blue (overview and process control). 

By adopting different hats, individuals can explore multiple perspectives and generate diverse ideas.

A real-life example of lateral thinking is the creation of the Post-it note. It is a popular and widely used office supply. The story goes that Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, was working on developing a super-strong adhesive. He accidentally ended up creating a weak, reusable adhesive. Despite all that, he couldn’t find a practical application for his invention.

Years later, another 3M employee named Art Fry was frustrated with using bookmarks that kept falling out of his choir hymnal. Remembering Silver’s adhesive, Fry saw an opportunity. He realized that the weak adhesive could be used. They could use it to create sticky notes that could be attached and removed from surfaces. All the while without leaving any residue.

Fry and Silver collaborated, combining their ideas to create the iconic Post-it note . The product initially faced skepticism within 3M. The reason was that it didn’t fit into the company’s traditional product lines. 

However, Fry and Silver persisted, demonstrating the usefulness and versatility of the product. Eventually, Post-it notes were introduced to the market. They became a global success. This resulted in revolutionizing office organization and note-taking.

This example demonstrates lateral thinking because it involves approaching a problem from a different angle. It also shows us that making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas is necessary. Rather than focusing solely on developing a strong adhesive, the inventors saw the potential in a weaker adhesive. They found an innovative application for it. All this led to the creation of a highly successful product.

  • Pay attention to your environment. Be mindful of the details. Engage your senses and observe things from different perspectives.
  • Seek new experiences, and explore different environments. We recommend you expose yourself to diverse stimuli.
  • Challenge the status quo and actively seek alternative solutions to problems.
  • Break free from your routine and try new approaches.
  • Cultivate curiosity by asking unconventional and unexpected questions. This can lead to new insights and spark innovative ideas.
  • Approach situations with a sense of wonder and a willingness to explore new possibilities.
  • Engage in regular brainstorming sessions, either individually or in groups.
  • Surround yourself with people coming from different backgrounds and with diverse expertise.
  • Encourage experimentation and risk-taking.
  • Believe in your ability to develop and improve your lateral thinking skills.

More like this:

  • What is Convergent Thinking? [Definition and Examples]
  • What Is Divergent Thinking? [Definition and Examples]
  • What Is Design Thinking? [5 Stages and Advantages]
  • Difference Between Strategic Thinking and Strategic Planning

The four principles of lateral thinking are:

  • Recognition of dominant ideas
  • Suspending judgment
  • Searching for alternatives
  • Creating new patterns

If you often come up with unconventional solutions, make unexpected connections. You may also be questioning assumptions. All of these say that you may possess the traits of a lateral thinker. Embracing creativity and thinking outside the box are key indicators.

Engaging in creative exercises, exposing oneself to diverse perspectives, and asking provocative questions are some factors that promote lateral thinking. Embracing ambiguity, using random stimuli, and fostering a playful and open-minded mindset also contribute to developing lateral thinking skills.

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Lateral Thinking vs Design Thinking: Decoding Problem-Solving Approaches

Lateral Thinking vs Design Thinking

Lateral thinking and design thinking are both methodologies that steer away from traditional linear approaches, fostering creativity and innovation for problem-solving. Lateral thinking, coined by Edward de Bono, encourages thinking outside the conventional framework, seeking answers that might not be evident at a first glance. It’s about disrupting established patterns of thinking to discover novel solutions to complex problems.

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

In contrast, design thinking is a more structured process that combines empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions into the given context. This approach, commonly used by designers, aims for a deep understanding of the people for whom they are designing the products or services. Its phases ensure that the creative process is directed and iterative, often leading to innovative outcomes that are tightly aligned with user needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Lateral thinking promotes indirect and innovative problem-solving tactics.
  • Design thinking follows a structured, user-centric approach to innovation.
  • Both methodologies aim to break conventional thinking patterns to achieve creative solutions.

Exploring the Basics of Lateral Thinking and Design Thinking

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

Lateral thinking and Design thinking are two methodologies that revolutionize problem-solving through creative and systematic processes. Each has distinctive approaches and techniques contributing to innovation and effective solutions.

Defining Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking , a term coined by Edward de Bono, emphasizes creativity and divergent thinking . It’s a technique that encourages individuals to look at problems from various, often unconventional, perspectives. Unlike traditional problem-solving methods, lateral thinking involves breaking away from established patterns and exploring multiple new ideas, which can lead to unexpected and innovative solutions.

Defining Design Thinking

On the other hand, Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five stages—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—it combines both convergent and divergent thinking to arrive at practical and human-centric solutions.

Comparative Overview

While lateral thinking is primarily about breaking out of traditional thinking patterns to develop novel ideas, design thinking is structured around understanding the user experience and iteratively refining solutions. Both methods highly value creativity and innovation but apply these in different contexts of the problem-solving process.

Cognitive Approaches in Lateral and Design Thinking

lateral thinking vs critical thinking

The cognitive strategies of both lateral and design thinking facilitate unique approaches to problem-solving. Understanding the thought patterns and mental modes specific to these methodologies allows for strategic breaking of conventional rules and generation of innovative ideas.

Thought Patterns and Mental Modes

In lateral thinking, thought patterns are marked by an avoidance of linear progressions for problem-solving. A lateral thinker might employ techniques such as provocation or random entry points to jolt the mind into new directions, often leading to creative breakthroughs. This approach emphasizes the quantity of ideas over their immediate quality, aiming to explore the breadth of possibilities without limitation. Brainstorming sessions in lateral thinking are structured to foster an environment where out-of-the-box strategies can flourish.

Conversely, design thinking involves a more structured sequence of thought patterns. A design thinker typically functions through empathy , defining problems, ideating, prototyping, and testing. While this approach also values creativity, it applies a more intentional and user-centered methodology, often utilizing collaborative efforts to refine solutions that are both innovative and practical. Constraints are considered key in shaping the process of ideation to align closely with end-user needs.

Challenging Assumptions and Constraints

The psychology behind lateral thinking is anchored in challenging assumptions . It encourages individuals to overturn established norms and explore unconventional solutions. A lateral thinker is taught to question the status quo and consider perspectives that may initially seem unrelated to the problem at hand. This cognitive approach leverages disruption as a means to arrive at novel solutions.

Design thinking, while also challenging assumptions, places considerable emphasis on identifying and working within constraints. These are not seen as limitations, but rather as parameters that guide the design process. Understanding and embracing constraints helps ensure that solutions are not only creative but also feasible and tailored to fit within certain real-world applications . Design thinkers often rely on iterative testing to refine ideas, acknowledging constraints as catalysts for innovation rather than barriers.

Both cognitive approaches endeavor to elevate critical thinking , enabling a re-examination and expansion of problem-solving capabilities for both the lateral and design thinker. Through their respective techniques of inciting provocation in lateral thinking or leveraging constraints in design thinking, they foster environments ripe for the unexpected connections that drive innovation.

Methodologies and Tools

The methodologies and tools of lateral and design thinking encapsulate varied techniques and instruments aimed at innovation and problem-solving. These approaches leverage specific strategic processes for ideation and development, often requiring unique sets of tools to navigate the complexities of creative thinking.

Techniques in Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking, introduced by Edward de Bono, employs non-traditional techniques aimed at changing perceptions and unlocking unforeseen solutions. One prominent technique is the Six Thinking Hats , a method that compartmentalizes thinking into six distinct modes, such as emotional, informational, or creative thinking. This technique encourages a shift in perspective and helps to avoid the tunnel vision that often accompanies conventional problem-solving. Another commonly used tool is mind mapping , which allows for the visualization of ideas and their connections, facilitating a more dynamic brainstorming process.

  • Six Thinking Hats
  • Mind Mapping

Techniques in Design Thinking

Design thinking is a solutions-based approach typically iterating through five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The techniques here focus on user-centric problem-solving. Ideation is a foundational stage where brainstorming and user research combine to generate diverse ideas. Prototyping swiftly turns concepts into tangible forms for testing, which in turn, garners feedback for refinement. This cycle of prototyping and testing ensures that solutions are deeply rooted in actual user needs and experiences. Design thinkers employ various tools and methods in this process, from sticky notes for brainstorming sessions to digital tools for creating interactive prototypes.

  • Brainstorming
  • User Research
  • Prototyping

Practical Applications and Results

In both lateral and design thinking, the focus lies on harnessing creativity and strategy to address complex problems. Organizations employ these methodologies to innovate, generate alternative solutions, and fine-tune their ideas through iterative testing.

Problem Solving and Innovation

In problem-solving, lateral thinking encourages looking at challenges from new angles. It breaks the shackles of conventional approaches to unearth innovative solutions. For instance, a company facing market decline might use lateral thinking to reinvent their product line, rather than just improve existing products. This can lead to groundbreaking innovations that set industry standards.

Design thinking , conversely, provides a more structured approach to innovation. It begins with empathy towards the user and progresses through defined stages of ideation, prototyping, and testing. This disciplined process ensures that every solution is intensely user-focused and has undergone rigorous evaluation before implementation.

Brainstorming and Ideation Sessions

During brainstorming and ideation sessions, lateral thinking is key for generating alternatives that are not confined by current paradigms. This form of thinking champions emergent ideas that might initially seem unrelated but could lead to viable solutions once explored.

Design thinking sessions are deliberate and collaborative. They emphasize collective ideation, where diverse teams work together to flesh out ideas and iterate upon them. It is this collaborative atmosphere that helps uncover hidden needs and wants of users, feeding the creative process .

Building Solutions Through Prototyping and Testing

Prototyping and testing are pivotal in both lateral and design thinking. Lateral thinking often leads to the creation of unconventional prototypes, providing a tangible form to abstract ideas. These prototypes can then be used to test the feasibility and practicality of the new solutions.

Design thinking uses prototyping as an integral step for building solutions . Each prototype undergoes continual testing, which not only refines the idea but also tests assumptions about user behavior and preferences. It’s an iterative process that gradually moves from wide-ranging possibilities to focused, user-centric solutions.

Impact of Lateral and Design Thinking in Organizations

Incorporating lateral and design thinking into organizational strategies significantly boosts innovation and problem-solving. These approaches reshape the environment, collaboration, and cultural objectives within an institution, steering clear of traditional linear methods and fostering a dynamic of perpetual growth and adaptation.

Fostering a Creative Environment

Lateral thinking challenges conventional approaches by encouraging an indirect and creative mindset towards problem-solving. It introduces techniques that may seem unrelated at first glance but can generate disruptive insights and creativity in an organization’s environment. This mindset helps organizations to thrive by exploring multiple possibilities rather than settling for the most obvious solutions. Design thinking , on the other hand, adopts an iterative process that involves understanding users, challenging assumptions, and redefining problems. This fosters a creative environment where solutions are not just innovative but also highly responsive to user needs.

Enhancing Collaboration and Feedback

Encouraging a culture of design thinking within an organization inherently promotes enhanced collaboration . It revolves around multi-disciplinary teams working together, sharing diverse perspectives, and building on each other’s ideas. Regular feedback loops are integral, allowing for the refinement and evolution of concepts. Lateral thinking complements this by adding a level of disruption that can break teams out of cognitive ruts, facilitating an even richer collaborative process that pushes beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom and explores new avenues for innovation.

Influence on Organizational Goals and Culture

Both lateral and design thinking can profoundly influence an organization’s objectives and culture. Clear goals are essential, but how these goals are approached can determine the level of innovative thinking within the firm. Organizations that emphasize these thinking strategies tend to embed creativity and people dynamics into their culture, cultivating a workspace that encourages experimentation and accepts the risks associated with it. This acceptance forms the bedrock for an adaptive culture that is well aligned with the fast-changing landscape of business and user needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

This section addresses common inquiries about the distinctions and applications of lateral thinking and design thinking, exploring their unique methodologies and practical aspects within problem-solving.

What are the distinct differences between lateral thinking and design thinking?

Lateral thinking is characterized by an indirect and creative approach, focusing on generating innovative ideas. In contrast, design thinking is a more structured, user-centric approach that involves understanding user needs, ideating solutions, prototyping, and testing.

Can you provide some examples of how lateral thinking and design thinking are applied in problem-solving?

Lateral thinking might involve asking unconventional questions to disrupt the status quo, such as finding new uses for existing products. Design thinking would approach problem-solving by empathizing with users, defining the problem, ideating solutions, creating prototypes, and testing with users to refine the solution.

How do lateral thinking strategies differ from vertical thinking methods?

Lateral thinking strategies are about breaking away from established patterns and considering non-obvious solutions, while vertical thinking methods are characterized by a logical, step-by-step progression where each step is based on the information gathered in the previous one.

In what ways does lateral thinking diverge from critical thinking?

Lateral thinking diverges from critical thinking in that it encourages thinking outside of conventional boundaries and accepting less obvious solutions, whereas critical thinking involves analyzing and evaluating an idea or argument to form a judgement.

What are some common techniques associated with lateral thinking?

Common techniques associated with lateral thinking include provocation and movement, random entry, and the use of analogies, all aimed at triggering creative and unexpected solutions.

How does lateral thinking play a role in the field of psychology?

In the field of psychology, lateral thinking is linked to creative problem-solving and divergent thinking—abilities that enable individuals to generate multiple solutions and approaches to complex issues.

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  1. Critical Thinking vs Lateral Thinking

    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.

  2. What is Lateral Thinking? Definition & 7 Techniques to Do It Right

    Here are a few lateral thinking techniques to broaden your own and your team's problem-solving skills. 1. Recognize thought patterns. Humans often get stuck in an anchoring bias: making judgments or decisions based on the first piece of information they receive.

  3. Critical Thinking vs Lateral Thinking: Examples and Tips

    To make the most of both skills, use critical thinking to define the problem, gather information, evaluate options, and refine your ideas. Meanwhile, use lateral thinking to generate ideas ...

  4. Lateral Thinking vs Vertical Thinking

    Key Takeaways. Lateral thinking encourages innovative solutions through a non-linear, creative approach. Vertical thinking provides a systematic method of problem-solving using logical steps. The effective application of both thinking styles enhances problem-solving and decision-making abilities.

  5. 3 Modes Of Thinking: Lateral, Divergent & Convergent Thought

    Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the truth value of statements and seeking errors. Lateral thinking is more concerned with the "movement value" of statements and ideas. A person uses lateral thinking to move from one known idea to creating new ideas.'. 3 Modes Of Thinking: Lateral, Divergent & Convergent Thought.

  6. The Most Valuable Skill In Difficult Times Is Lateral Thinking—Here's

    Lateral thinking is the essence of creativity. In times of crisis, much gets written about the importance of leaders not "losing their heads.". But, while remaining calm is a pre-requisite of ...

  7. What is Lateral Thinking?

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  8. Lateral thinking

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  9. How is Critical Thinking Different from Analytical or Lateral Thinking

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  10. What Is Lateral Thinking? The Skill You Need

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  11. Lateral Thinking

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  12. Lateral & Creative Thinking

    Lateral thinking offers a somewhat structured way to generate new ideas, while creative thinking opens the door to all possibilities. While critical thinking is needed in identifying and starting to solve problems, lateral and creative thinking help generate multiple, different, and often unexpected solutions.

  13. Thinking in Different Directions

    Lateral thinking views a problem from multiple perspectives, many of them random. Because lateral thinking is based on discovery and exploration of spontaneous events, it is the opposite of linear thinking: slow, disorganized, and nonsequential. Lateral thinking teeters close to the edge of disaster because it is greatly affected by luck and ...

  14. Linear Thinking vs Lateral Thinking

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  16. Lateral Thinking: What Is It and Benefits

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  18. How Does Critical Differ from Analytical or Lateral Thinking?

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  19. Vertical & Lateral Thinking

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  20. What Is Lateral Thinking? Definition and Examples

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  21. Who are more important

    A leader has to have critical thinking abilities, but lateral thinking abilities can be found across levels. Sunil Kumar, CHRO, PVR, says, "For certain routine functions, it is better to have lateral thinkers on board, but for role-specific functions, it is advisable to hire critical thinkers.". "There are certain leaders - given the ...

  22. Lateral Thinking vs Design Thinking

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  23. Vertical vs. Lateral Thinking

    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.