Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.
|Origin||Coined by Maltese psychologist and author Edward de Bono in the late 1960s.|
|Overview||Lateral Thinking is a creative problem-solving approach that encourages thinking outside conventional boundaries and exploring multiple perspectives to arrive at innovative solutions. It challenges linear and logical thinking in favor of unconventional ideas and creativity.|
|Key Elements||– Creativity: Lateral Thinking emphasizes the generation of novel ideas and solutions through unconventional approaches.|
|– Provocation: Encourages the use of provocative statements or questions to disrupt traditional thought patterns.|
|– Challenge Assumptions: Involves questioning assumptions, beliefs, and constraints to explore new possibilities.|
|– Random Entry: Promotes starting from unrelated or seemingly irrelevant points to trigger new insights.|
|How It Works||Lateral Thinking employs techniques like brainstorming, provocation, mind mapping, and role-playing to explore diverse perspectives and generate innovative solutions. It encourages the breaking of mental habits and the exploration of new paths to address problems or challenges.|
|Applications||– Problem Solving: Ideal for tackling complex problems that require innovative solutions.|
|– Creativity Enhancement: Used in creative processes to foster idea generation.|
|Benefits||– Innovation: Promotes creative thinking and innovative problem-solving.|
|– Expanded Perspectives: Encourages individuals and teams to consider multiple viewpoints.|
|Drawbacks||– Subjectivity: Effectiveness may vary based on individuals’ creativity and comfort with unconventional thinking.|
|– Not Always Practical: May not be suitable for all types of problems or situations.|
|Key Takeaway||Lateral Thinking is a powerful tool for fostering creativity and finding unconventional solutions to complex problems. By challenging assumptions, provoking new ideas, and exploring diverse perspectives, individuals and teams can break free from conventional thought patterns and arrive at innovative solutions. While it may not be suited for every situation, it remains a valuable approach for promoting creativity and innovation.|
Understanding lateral thinking
Lateral thinking was coined by Maltese psychologist Edward De Bono, who argued that the concept was useful in forcing business executives to think outside the box.
Traditional methods of introducing new products to the market involve analyzing market needs and then creating products suited to specific audiences.
In mature markets however, this approach leads to a proliferation of niche offerings that in turn increases market fragmentation.
Inevitably, the individual segments become so niche that businesses cannot turn profits in them.
Lateral thinking is an alternative approach to this way of thinking. While there is an obvious need for creative thinking in gaining a competitive advantage, creativity itself is difficult to define.
Indeed, many individuals have trouble summoning creativity at will and others may simply view themselves as uncreative individuals.
So what is the answer? Provocation.
Provocation causes mental instability in an individual and as a result, it forces them to develop new ideas.
Importantly, the provocation must be outside of the experience or comfort zone of the individual or business concerned.
The four categories of provocation in lateral thinking
Consumers in modern society are quick to take offense, so businesses often find themselves appeasing the masses.
But to stand out, provocative lateral thinking is the best way to verify whether creative ideas have potential.
Here are the four categories of provocation that such ideas may fall under:
Where normal properties of products or services are exaggerated.
Given that Guinness beer takes longer to pour than some competitors, the company exaggerated the slow preparation time through its “great things come to those who wait” advertising slogan.
Which forces businesses to cancel, negate, drop, remove, or deny what they take for granted.
A car manufacturer may take for granted that their cars have wheels, but what would happen if cars didn’t have wheels?
While it is obviously not viable to sell a car without wheels, perhaps the company could design a car where the wheels were hidden from view.
Where conventional wisdom is replaced by any form of an opposite, perverse, or backward viewpoint.
In an Australian government-run ad campaign on the dangers of speeding, advertisements described the consequences and depicted accident scenes.
However, the campaign had little effect on speeding among male drivers.
The campaign was later revised, showing footage of young men speeding and being judged negatively by women in their age group.
The message caught on and was highly successful, with over 60% of young male drivers admitting to reconsidering their driving habits.
Where a business turns a fantasy wish into a provocation.
When a marketing team brainstorms potential provocations, many of them will be unrealistic, politically incorrect, ineffective, or just plain ridiculous.
However, a combination of unreasonable provocations may subsequently result in a good idea coming to mind.
Therefore, it is important to write down ideas – irrespective of potential viability – and move through the process regardless.
How to obtain fresh perspectives with lateral thinking
Here are a few ways to obtain fresh perspectives with lateral thinking.
This method is a three-step process.
To start, use random metaphors to enhance your creative process. Choose a nearby item or a word from the dictionary, and write down all of the associations and characteristics you can think of that are related to it.
For example, if you choose the word “exhibition,” you may write down aspects such as:
- “Visitors walking around enjoying artwork”.
- “Learning about cultures”, and
- “Enjoying a pleasant environment”.
Next, imagine some expert in your field recommends you use this item or word as a metaphor for your project. For instance, you could organize information, tips, and images for a travel-related app to function like an art or museum exhibition with enjoyable virtual tours of various locations.
Lastly, incorporate the metaphors you came up with into your design or product to improve it. You could create an engaging app with virtual reality features that allow tourists to explore a location in a unique and captivating way.
Real-world examples of VR in museums include:
- Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute – where visitors can explore the depths of the ocean, inside the human body, and the vastness of space with virtual reality experiences.
- Louvre – the Louvre in Paris introduced the VR-based exhibition Mona Lisa: Beyond The Glass in 2019 with interactive design, sound, and animated images.
Another technique to think laterally is SCAMPER. By asking seven different types of questions about how to innovate and improve existing products, services, or concepts, you can develop fresh solutions efficiently and effectively.
The seven questions form part of the SCAMPER acronym:
- Substitute – what can be substituted or replaced in the current situation? What can be used instead of the current solution?
- Combine – what elements can be combined or merged to create a new solution? How can different ideas, methods, or concepts be combined to devise something new?
- Adapt – how can the current solution be adapted or modified to better fit the problem or situation at hand? Can existing ideas or methods be tweaked?
- Modify – how can the current solution be modified or enhanced to make it more effective?
- Put to other uses – how can the current solution be used in different or unexpected ways? Are there other applications or markets?
- Eliminate – what can be removed or eliminated from the current solution? What aspects are unnecessary or hindering progress?
- Reverse – what can be reversed or rearranged in the current solution? What would happen if the order or sequence of steps were changed?
Six thinking hats
To consider alternative perspectives, try using the six thinking hats method which was developed by de Bono himself.
Each of the six colored hats is worn by a different team member and represents a different perspective that encourages lateral thinking:
- White hat – calls for information that is known or needed. In other words, the facts.
- Yellow hat – this hat represents optimism and searches for value and benefit.
- Black hat – the black hat is the risk management hat. It identifies potential problems and risks or explains why an idea may not work. Think of it as the devil’s advocate.
- Red hat – characterized by emotions, hunches, and intuition. The person wearing the red hat is free to share their likes, dislikes, loves, and hates.
- Green hat – the most creative hat that is open to new possibilities and perceptions, and
- Blue hat – a mediator that manages the ideation process and ensures rules are followed.
Lateral thinking case study
Lateral thinking can be used to solve many complex workplace problems. We have explained three common predicaments below to show how it can be used to arrive at the correct solution.
Problem 1 – The company must reduce real estate costs
The conventional approach here would be for the company to increase the density of its workspace and reduce the floor space that each desk occupies.
This may involve reducing the size of work cubicles or assigning two people to an office previously occupied by one person.
Other actions that may be immediately obvious include making better use of wasted space in hallways, meeting rooms, and storage rooms.
A solution based on lateral thinking, however, is to reduce the floor space that every person occupies. This means more shared areas and fewer dedicated areas.
While it is true that desk sizes may become smaller irrespective of the solution, shared spaces are beneficial in that they are located near focus areas, work cafes, and huddle rooms where employees can interact and collaborate.
Problem 2 – The company must pander to millennial employees to secure the best talent
When faced with an inability to secure the best millennial talent in an industry, many businesses create work environments characterized by free food, contemporary design, open desking, and an excessive amount of lighting and other gimmicks.
How could lateral thinking be employed here? Instead of the company becoming preoccupied with catering to a certain generation of employees, it could devote its resources toward corporate social responsibility, a focus on community, and superior work/life balance facilitated by mobile work and flexible work practices.
These initiatives will appeal to every generation – not just consumers – and, as a result, the business may discover that it has access to a larger talent pool than it realized.
Problem 3 – The company must address a reduction in employee productivity
Faced with unproductive employees, a leader’s first impulse may be to implement a quick fix such as creating more enclosed offices or increasing the height of the walls between cubicles.
Others may introduce a number of new rules around acceptable forms of behavior.
The less obvious – and perhaps counterintuitive – solution would be to reduce the height of cubicle walls and designate specific areas of the office as quiet zones.
How could this solution be beneficial? For one, lower cubicle walls mean employees become more aware of those around them.
They may instinctively lower the volume of their voice or form other habits to be more considerate toward others.
Quite zones also act as an insurance policy against certain employees who will be disruptive regardless of the solution imposed.
These zones are a sanctuary for those who need work in a quiet environment without necessarily leaving their area.
Quiet rooms designed to accommodate small groups can also be used to conduct impromptu but non-disruptive meetings.
Lateral thinking examples in business
One of the lateral thinking techniques Apple utilizes to generate product features is known as “Random Entry”.
Teams start with a clear, well-defined problem and traverse one of de Bono’s random word tables by rolling a dice multiple times.
The team then spends time coming up with as many ideas as possible that associate the word with the problem statement.
This process is brief and no longer than three minutes in total. Ideas are then discussed and built upon if they stimulate deeper discussion before the process is repeated for another problem statement.
According to former Apple employee Alan Cannistrato, one example is the problem statement that reads as follows:
“Video editing is too hard, and should be more fun.”
Now, let’s say the team landed on the word “bicycle” and was required to devise solutions that simplified video editing, made it more enjoyable, and were related to bicycles.
Here are a few of the features Cannistrato came up with:
- Automatically detect bike tricks and post them to Vine.
- Render a so-called “travel-by-map” montage with established bike routes.
- Superimpose iPhone sensor data over a live video stream, and
- Develop an effect pack for iMovie with an 80s BMX theme.
Tim Berners-Lee is the man responsible for inventing the internet and its three fundamental components: the formatting language HTML, the address system URL, and the HTTP system that links individual sites.
Berners-Lee first proposed the idea of a global information system in 1980 while working at CERN – otherwise known as the European Particle Physics Laboratory.
His system was based on an idea called ‘hypertext’ and would enable researchers to share information irrespective of their location. He even built an early prototype and called it ‘Enquire’.
In 1989, Berners-Lee authored a paper titled Information Management: A Proposal.
CERN was the largest internet node in Europe at the time, and he saw an opportunity to develop a global system based on hypertext and the internet.
This system, which would enable information to be distributed globally and not just within companies, was dubbed the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee’s flash of inspiration
It is important to note that most of the technology Berners-Lee needed to construct the World Wide Web was already in existence.
Nevertheless, it remained the domain of computer nerds and was inaccessible to the general public.
Berners-Lee noted that components “like the hypertext, like the internet, multi-font text-objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.”
Based on this lateral thinking exercise, he created the world’s first website, http://info.cern.ch, which went live in 1991.
To make his system more accessible, the site explained the concept of the World Wide Web and also details on hypertext, how to build webpages, and how to search the web for information.
Lateral Thinking vs. Vertical Thinking
Lateral thinking is the process of developing many creative solutions to problems – irrespective of whether they are considered good, bad, wrong, or right.
Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.
The characteristics of a lateral thinker
The lateral thinker can be distilled into three characteristics:
- The ability to focus on overlooked aspects of a problem or situation.
- The ability to seek alternatives, whether that be alternative solutions or more importantly, alternative ways of thinking.
- The ability to challenge their assumptions and break free from the status quo. This is otherwise known as critical thinking.
Most people are born lateral thinkers but lose their creative flair at schools that promote strict adherence to the rules and one correct answer to any problem.
How can lateral and vertical thinking be combined?
Despite the distinctions between the two methods, it’s important to note that neither type of thinking should be used in isolation all of the time. Instead, think of lateral thinking and vertical thinking as two sides of the same coin.
Lateral thinking encourages the individual to create a long list of new ideas to find the best solution.
But to ensure that at least one of these ideas comes to fruition, vertical thinking should be used to consider the possibility of implementation.
In this process, vertical thinking should determine whether the solution is valid or indeed viable.
Lateral Thinking vs. Linear Thinking
In a linear thinking mode, you tend to apply very simple logic to an event.
Thus, it makes you leverage simple thinking to navigate the world.
While linear thinking might help in many situations, its main drawback is the fact that it might lead to falling into the trap of first-order effect thinking.
First-order effect thinking is a mode of thinking where you think in straight lines, thus connecting an effect to a cause as if that’s all.
However, in the real world and in the business world, often that might lead you astray.
An example is between the short term and the long term.
Think of the case of a company consciously giving up part of its short-term profitability to actually generate much more profits and cash flow in the longer run.
A linear thinker would think this is not good, as that person might look to short-term consequences.
An example of that is Amazon and how, for years, the company has been giving away profitability to prioritize long-term cash generations.
For years analyses have looked at Amazon and concluded that the company was going to be bankrupt because of its lack of profitability.
When Amazon finally, and after a decade, became wildly profitable and cash free positive, many of these same analysts were surprised!
These analysts were thinking linearly…
Lateral Thinking vs. Divergent Thinking
Lateral thinking is a form of horizontal expiration of ideas by leveraging an alternative approach to problem-solving.
Similarly, divergent thinking also leverages an unstructured problem-solving method, where creativity is critical to generate unconventional solutions.
Compared to other thinking models, like linear thinking, leverage creativity as the main problem-solving.
Since lateral and divergent thinking promotes creativity for problem-solving, both leverage second-order thinking to understand the situation more broadly, looking beyond first-order effects.
Lateral Thinking And Second-Order Effects
Lateral thinking also helps in developing a second-order effect approach to things.
In short, with a second-order approach and thinking, you’re able to understand the cascade effects of decisions in a complex environment where there is a lot of uncertainty.
In that respect, also system thinking moves in the same direction.
Lateral thinking, combined with the understanding of second-order dynamics and systems thinking, helps have a much more nuanced understanding of the business world.
Those can help when things that seem to make sense in the short term might have a cascading effect in the long term.
All these thinking models, from lateral to divergent, second-order effect, and systems thinking, are all horizontal discovery tools and thinking models which are non-linear.
Those thinking tools are extremely useful in an ambiguous environment with a lot of noise.
In the opposite scenario, linear thinking models might be more useful in a controlled environment with little noise.
Additional Case Studies
- Dyson Vacuums:
- Problem: Vacuum cleaners losing suction over time.
- Lateral Solution: Inspired by industrial sawmills using cyclonic separation, James Dyson created the first bagless vacuum cleaner that maintained suction power.
- Southwest Airlines Turnaround Strategy:
- Problem: Ensuring flight punctuality.
- Lateral Solution: Instead of focusing on quicker takeoffs, they optimized turnaround time (offloading and boarding passengers) to increase overall efficiency.
- Netflix’s Evolution:
- Problem: DVD rental late fees and limited physical rental availability.
- Lateral Solution: Transition from a DVD-by-mail service to a streaming platform, removing the need for physical rentals and late fees.
- IKEA’s Flat-Pack Furniture:
- Problem: High shipping costs and potential damage during transport.
- Lateral Solution: Ship unassembled furniture in flat packs, reducing costs and allowing customers to assemble products at home.
- Zara’s Fast Fashion Model:
- Problem: Fashion industry’s long lead times causing missed trends.
- Lateral Solution: Zara implemented a rapid production cycle to quickly adapt to changing fashion trends, producing smaller batches and more frequent inventory turnover.
- Airbnb’s Business Model:
- Problem: High hotel prices and lack of authentic travel experiences.
- Lateral Solution: Instead of building new hotels, Airbnb created a platform for people to rent out their own homes or rooms, offering travelers a unique and often more affordable experience.
- Tinder’s Swipe Feature:
- Problem: Traditional online dating sites were cumbersome and time-consuming.
- Lateral Solution: Tinder introduced the simple swipe left or right feature, revolutionizing the online dating experience with speed and ease.
- Spotify’s Streaming Service:
- Problem: Rampant music piracy and declining sales of CDs.
- Lateral Solution: Instead of fighting against piracy with lawsuits, Spotify offered an affordable streaming platform, making it easy for users to access music legally.
- Uber’s Ride-Hailing Model:
- Problem: Traditional taxi services were often unreliable and expensive.
- Lateral Solution: Uber created a platform where anyone with a car could offer rides, disrupting the taxi industry by providing a more convenient and often cheaper alternative.
- Google’s Ad Auction System:
- Problem: Traditional online ad sales were based on fixed prices.
- Lateral Solution: Google introduced an auction system where advertisers could bid for ad placements, optimizing ad relevance and revenue.
- Lateral thinking is an indirect, creative, and non-linear approach to problem-solving.
- There are several lateral thinking techniques, but the mental instability caused by provocation forces individuals and businesses to consider a range of creative possibilities.
- Lateral thinking can produce a variety of unrealistic solutions, but it is important to explore them thoroughly. Doing so may subsequently yield better, potentially viable ideas.
Key Highlights of Lateral Thinking
- Definition: Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem differently, promoting creative thinking, and finding unconventional ways to solve known problems. It was coined by psychologist Edward De Bono.
- Importance: Lateral thinking helps businesses break away from routine problem-solving and encourages creative solutions. It allows organizations to stand out and overcome challenges in unique ways.
- Four Categories of Provocation: In lateral thinking, provocation is used to stimulate creativity and idea generation. There are four categories of provocation: exaggeration, escape, reversal, and wishful thinking. By exploring these categories, businesses can uncover innovative ideas.
- Combining Lateral and Vertical Thinking: Lateral thinking is best combined with vertical thinking, which focuses on analytical and sequential problem-solving. While lateral thinking generates creative ideas, vertical thinking assesses their viability and implementation potential.
- Real-World Examples: Several successful companies, like Apple and Amazon, have applied lateral thinking to innovate and develop groundbreaking products and services.
- Characteristics of Lateral Thinkers: Lateral thinkers possess the ability to focus on overlooked aspects, seek alternatives, and challenge assumptions. These characteristics foster creativity and innovation.
- Combining Lateral and Divergent Thinking: Lateral thinking and divergent thinking share similarities as both promote creative problem-solving and exploring multiple solutions. Both leverage second-order thinking to understand complex situations and future consequences.
- System Thinking and Second-Order Effects: System thinking and understanding second-order effects are related concepts that complement lateral thinking. They provide a more nuanced understanding of complex environments and help anticipate cascading effects of decisions.
Connected Thinking Frameworks