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.
- Understanding lateral thinking
- The four categories of provocation in lateral thinking
- Lateral thinking examples
- Key takeaways
- Connected Business Frameworks
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:
- Exaggeration – 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.
- Escape – 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.
- Reversal – 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.
- Wishful thinking – where a business turns a fantasy wish into a provocation. Wishful thinking is often related to vision, mission, and company values and is perhaps one of the simplest ways to put creative ideas into practice.
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.
Lateral thinking examples
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 a reduction in 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 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.
Connected Business Frameworks
Other related business frameworks:
- AIDA Model
- Ansoff Matrix
- Business Analysis
- Business Model Canvas
- Business Strategy Frameworks
- Blue Ocean Strategy
- BCG Matrix
- Porter’s Five Forces
- VRIO Framework