This article provides a practical explanation of lateral thinking, developed by Edward the Bono. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this useful problem solving method and creativity tool. It’s easy to use once you get it, and the result can be a true paradigm shift.
What is lateral thinking?
Lateral thinking is defined by Oxford’s Lexico as solving problems with “an indirect and creative approach, typically through viewing the problem in a new and unusual light.” But it’s not just another buzzword.
The concept of lateral thinking has been around for decades and it has a very specific methodology. This means you can use lateral thinking tools to solve your own or your business’s problems in a new and creative way.
The thing that distinguishes this problem-solving method from the rest of the bunch is that you’re encouraged to change the way you look at the problem. When you do that, you may find that the “problem” you were trying to solve is not the problem. The problem is actually something else.
How is that possible? The thing is before you start solving a problem, you need to perceive it. You need to form an understanding of the problem, a conceptual framework of what is happening. You build that based on your existing understanding of how things should work and may take some elements of the problem for granted because of that.
If that preconceived notion of the problem is wrong, you can’t solve it. The other thing that prevents you from solving the problem is thinking vertically, or linearly.
For instance, if you run an IT company and the product you’re working on fails to perform when the number of visitors increases, simply scaling up the hardware may not solve the problem. You may need to find operational bottlenecks and improve them instead.
Examples of lateral thinking
The easiest way to understand lateral thinking is by looking at riddles that require you to find a new way of looking at the problem. Here’s one.
A man rode into town on Monday. He stayed for three nights and then left on Monday. How can that be?
If you start to think of it, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s six nights till the next Monday, not three. A careful reader, however, will spot that the man rode into town, not drove into it. Since the road to town took some time, it’s natural he left on Monday after spending only three nights there.
Now, this riddle is a linguistic one, but it takes a tiny conceptual shift to solve it. We don’t use horses anymore, so most people automatically assume the process of riding into a town is instantaneous. Here’s a more difficult riddle.
A man is wearing all black. He is walking down a street where all street lamps are off. A black car is coming towards him with its lights off but somehow manages to stop in time. How did the driver see the man?
Since there are so many words denoting blackness in this riddle, at first, most people assume the street was pitch black. But the fact that the street lamps were off may mean it was actually daytime, so there is no way that the driver could have missed the black-clad man.
This is what lateral thinking is in its essence. The process of challenging your own assumptions about the problem you’re facing. Now that you understand how it works, let’s look at a more down-to-earth example.
A hungry customer walks into a restaurant. There are plenty of places to sit, but he wanders for a bit and leaves. Why?
This is no riddle. It’s a problem hundreds of business owners struggle with, and it has no definite answer. Take a minute or two and come up with possible reasons of what might have happened. Here’s our list for the reference:
- The customer just didn’t like the atmosphere.
- The customer expected to find their friends there but didn’t.
- The customer was misled by the sign and thought the place served Italian food, but it didn’t.
- The customer was looking for a power outlet but all the tables with them were taken.
- The customer came over because of the advertised happy hour, didn’t find any information about it on display, and thought he missed it.
While none of these are solutions in and of themselves, these iterations on the initial problem show possible causes of it. You can’t change the outcome in the first two cases, but the last three variants give you an opportunity to improve things.
Where can you use lateral thinking?
The basics of lateral thinking are easy to grasp, but where can use this methodology apart from solving riddles?
The game of Go
If you haven’t heard of Go yet, you read up and try to play it. It’s a strategic Japanese game that can change your perception of strategy in both business and life.
This game is well suited for lateral thinking, especially for beginners. Often, beginners with a Western background start playing this game with a bunch of preconceptions that prove completely wrong.
For instance, you can solve the problem on one end of the gameboard by ignoring it and focusing your efforts on dominating the opponent on the rest of the board. You may not ever become a professional, but the insights and the application of lateral thinking can be eye-opening.
While lean thinking or lean methodology is rooted in lean manufacturing, you can use this approach in any industry. The core of lean thinking is constantly looking for areas of your business to improve and solving problems by finding structurally new approaches to them. Sounds a lot like lateral thinking.
For instance, you create a value stream map and see that it takes too much time to pass on tasks from one department to the next. The regular approach to this problem is to have a meeting and state how important it is to work across departments.
If you apply lateral thinking, however, you’ll see that the problem is workers don’t want to check their emails and risk losing concentration. Implementing HR software with a digital task whiteboard that every employee can check with in the morning can be the right solution because it doesn’t distract workers.
Customer journey mapping
The last example of lateral thinking is basically a customer journey map. When you create one, you are confronted with user behavior but not much explanation of it. Combine data mining and behavior tracking with lateral thinking to come up with the right interpretation of the problem and its solution.
Innovation is where lateral thinking shines. What is entrepreneurship if not finding new unsolved problems and coming up with creative ways to solve them? Use lateral thinking to challenge your assumptions of the problems people face, and you will find the sweet spot.
You can test your solutions with another De Bono’s methodology, the six thinking hats to make sure it’s going to work.
How to implement lateral thinking
Whatever problem you’re solving, here are two simple steps you have to take to make your thinking and implementation process effective.
Lateral thinking is not just thinking creatively. You have to challenge the framing of the problem. Ask yourself:
- What unknown factors may influence the outcome?
- What can we misinterpret in the formulation of the problem?
- Is this problem a part of a bigger problem?
If you’re stuck with problem-solving, try using the random association method. Pick a random word from the dictionary or a book, and form free associations with that work that may solve the problem.
For instance, if the problem is lack of cross-department cooperation, and the word you find is “equine,” you may remember that the word comes from Latin. Romans were known for creating laws that are still followed across the Western world, so maybe you can work on your company rules.
Whatever solution you come up with, don’t forget it’s just an idea, not the perfect solution. An idea that may work or fail.
You need to back it up with data and if you do decide to implement it, track its performance to see if it works out well.
Now It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation of lateral thinking, developed by Edward de Bono? Do you use lateral thinking in practice? What other tools for creativity are you familiar with, which also contribute to solving problems?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Bun, K. J. (2018). 67 Lateral Thinking Puzzles: Games And Riddles To Kill Time And Build Brain Cells. Independently published.
- De Bono, E. (1992). Serious creativity: using the power of lateral thinking to create new ideas. HarperBusiness.
- De Bono, E. (2015). Serious Creativity: How to Be Creative Under Pressure and Turn Ideas into Action. Random House UK.
- Yasuyuki, M. (1998). Go, an Asian Paradigm for Business Strategy. Kiseido Publishing Company.
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