Getting trained on specific techniques may make you proficient in figuring out why a problem occurred in that particular field and then figure out ways to fix the problem. But when it comes to creative problem-solving, sometimes, you have to start from a blank page as to where the problem occurred and a solution must be thought of. In such situations, the more you are able to think laterally, the more equipped you will be to come up with an unconventional or unique idea that you may otherwise have not considered.
We normally approach problem-solving in a traditional way where logical, structured and procedural thinking skills are applied, but according to inventor and psychologist Edward De Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, this isn’t the only way to come up with creative ideas. According to him, we cannot make the best use of available information unless we know how to create new patterns and escape from the dominance of the old ones.
So, What exactly is lateral thinking?
According to de Bono, it is both an attitude and a method of using information in a creative manner where you deliberately look at challenges from completely different angles. It involves breaking away from traditional modes of thinking and doing away with established patterns and rejecting “status quo” of ideas. The main purpose of lateral thinking is to conceive entirely new ways of looking at a problem to have new ideas without getting trapped by the obvious or to restructure a pattern.
Essentially jumping to laterally related ideas and discovering unexpected relationships between seemingly unrelated elements is what makes lateral thinking different from other traditional approaches like logical, structured and procedural step-by-step approach which is also known as vertical thinking.
What makes lateral thinking different from other thinking skills
Lateral thinking is a more of an insight tool that involves more of forward thinking to build up something new rather than analysing something old. When you need to focus your creativity in designing or inventing, you need to be thinking from a blank page, and not about improving what is already there. Thinking laterally helps you to be more proactive, especially, when solving a problem that is not yet known and can help you choose your starting point to arrive at a solution.
Whereas a sequential approach to solving a problem curbs creative ideas and lacks a multidirectional approach. It limits one’s ability to one up with new or unique ideas as it is more dependent on the available data or information. Even in critical thinking, one is primarily concerned with judging/ seeking errors and not thinking creatively enough.
Whereas, thinking laterally involves being wrong on purpose in order to provoke a rearrangement of information to come up with a right solution towards the end because of which it allows you to suspend your judgment at each step of the problem-solving process. Whereas vertical thinking involves being right all along where judgment is exercised at every stage that limits ideas.
Uses of thinking laterally
- Problem-solving. Lateral thinking is an essential part of all thinking and especially useful in problem solving. In ordinary thinking, we never manage to go beyond the adequate. As soon as something is satisfactory, we cannot further proceed thinking logically. Without a method for changing concepts and bringing them up to date one is liable to be trapped by old concepts which are no more useful. Rigid patterns of thinking can actually create more problems. Whereas lateral thinking provides better techniques for handling information to problem-solve.
- Innovation. Most of us are in need of continuous flow of new ideas especially, if you are working in creative fields like marketing, designing, research, advertising or architecture. Vertical or our traditional thinking makes it difficult for you to generate new ideas. With lateral thinking you can be more creative by deliberate generation of new ideas that help you break current thinking patterns like routine patterns or the status quo.
- Restructuring. Certain situations become problematic because they are blocked by the present patterns, approaches or arrangement of available information. And some problems require no new information but require rearrangement of available information. Through deliberate alteration of lateral thinking, you can restructure your existing thinking patterns to generate new solutions instead of thinking in rigid or definite ways.
- Developing new perspectives. We normally move in a clearly defined direction towards the solution of a problem. Always using a definite approach or some definite technique curbs our ability to come up with creative and novel ideas. Whereas by thinking laterally, you move towards something to generate a new perspective. This way, you can experiment with models, designs, ideas or explore different approaches or perspectives.
- Challenging assumptions. In dealing with certain situations or problems, one assumes certain boundaries that limits the exploration of solutions. Such boundaries are normally set for convenience. Such assumptions can be challenged with lateral thinking to break current or cliched thinking patterns. It is used to counter rigid patterns and sharp divisions.
How to improve your lateral thinking
Many times, we use the excuse that we are not creative enough. It is true that some people are more apt to come up with variety of solutions than others, but we all have the capacity to think creatively. Because thinking is a skill we can all improve, there are different tools and techniques that can help improve our ability to think laterally. Here are some practical techniques that are developed by de Bono that can be applied to develop the lateral thinking habit. Once learnt, you can apply further to problem-solve.
- Use of Analogies. The main problem in problem-solving sometimes is to get going or to start a train of thought. And sometimes it is to escape from the most obvious and cliche train of thought. Analogies can be a great way for getting going when you are trying to find new ways of looking at a situation instead of just waiting for inspiration. A problem can be translated into an analogy and then translated back again into problem to see what changed. The purpose of analogies is to generate movement to your thinking for generating ideas and are used only for stimulation.
- Generate alternatives. Deliberately generating alternatives even if there is an apparent or a suitable solution to a problem. Instead of stopping as soon as you find what appears to be the best idea, deliberately considering alternative approaches regardless how irrelevant they might seem helps you to loosen up rigid ways of looking at things. This helps you in concept formation or idea generation and expands the range of concepts or ideas that you can come up with.
- ‘Why’ technique. It is possible that the way you do everything in your life is the best possible way of doing it, but not likely, there are other ways to do things more effectively and efficiently. Use “why” technique to challenge your old patterns and ask questions as to why something exists or why a particular thing had to be done the way it is being done. This technique helps you challenge any cliche pattern which may be restructured to make better use of information. Challenge the necessity of assumed boundaries/limits and challenge the validity of your concepts or ideas.
- Random idea stimulation. Often when we try solving a problem, we shut out all outside stimuli so we can focus. Even though allowing outside stimuli can disrupt our reliance on imperfect framework, paying attention to randomness can sometimes lead to new insights. You can choose random inputs or ideas of others instead of shutting out something which does not appear relevant. Listening to others even if you disagree very strongly with their ideas can sometimes provide you with valuable input. Exposing yourself to ideas from completely different fields or physical exposure like going to a place which has nothing to do with the subject you are interested in can also help you see things differently from the current way of looking at the situation.
- Brainstorming. You can use brainstorming to generate new ideas to overcome the rigidity of vertical thinking. While any problem can be the subject of a brainstorming, the way you formulate a problem makes huge difference to the way one can come up with a solution. In brainstorming, provocation is supplied by the ideas of others and to stimulate new ideas. Even if an idea appears obvious and trivial, it can be combined with other ideas to produce something very original. Because different people taking part and each tend to follow their own lines of thought there is less chance of getting stuck with a particular way of looking at a problem.
- Reverse thinking. Often it is difficult to get started on solving an open-ended creative problem. We often get stuck at starting stage. By moving in the opposite direction to that which is obvious can help you to move out of standard way of looking at the problem. It does not matter whether the new way makes sense or not, it makes it easier for you to move in the other direction. This frees up the information that can come together in a new way. In reversal method, you can take things as they are and then turn them round, inside out, upside down or back to front to rearrange the available information to provoke a different way of looking at the situation.
- Fractionation. Our mind has a tendency for established patterns grow larger because of which it becomes much more difficult to look at in a new way. If you can break the problem or situation down into fractions with no definite line of division visible, you can then restructure the situation putting the fractions together in a new way. Instead of trying to discover the correct way, you can think laterally for a provocative arrangement of information that can lead to looking at things in a new way. This way, you can move away from a fixed approach and can find ways to come up with original solutions.
Related: lateral thinking questions
Ask yourself questions for lateral thinking
How often do I think unconventionally in solving problems?
How can I change the parts of this problem with something that will best help me come up with a solution?
What other potential perspectives or strategies could exist?
How can I change the attitude and approach about this problem?
How can I break and combine different aspects of this problem in a way that will provide me a solution?
How open am I to different opinions, changes and perspectives?
What else is like this or is there something similar to my problem , but in different context?
How can I rearrange the problem or what are the potential solutions if I viewed the problem back to front?
What solutions are possible by doing exactly opposite?
Being creative doesn’t only mean new ideas or inventions. It can also mean new ways of doing things, new approaches to solve problems, new ways of looking at existing ideas, new ways of organising or presenting things and letting go of mental constraints or default ways of reasoning that we have boxed ourselves in.
When you think laterally, you find such creative approaches, new concepts or ideas that you never new you had to problem-solve. Like any other skill, this requires practice. You can apply above tips to help you develop lateral thinking habit to loosen up your old rigid thinking patterns and to think outside the box. It all comes down to positioning yourself mentally to question status quo and being open enough to grasp new ways of thinking about complex challenges.