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.
What’s lateral thinking?
Lateral thinking, sometimes called horizontal thinking or divergent thinking, is 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.
Why is lateral thinking important?
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.
How to improve lateral thinking
Lateral thinking might seem abstract and hard to implement. But adding steps to your brainstorming process can help you become more conscious of your thought patterns, identify gaps, and think of creative ideas. Here are a few ways 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.
2. Ask why
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.
Benefits of lateral thinking
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.
Challenges of lateral thinking
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.
Rethink your problem-solving process
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.