The term lateral thinking refers to a problem-solving strategy that utilizes creative and indirect reasoning. We might colloquially call it “thinking outside the box.’
Instead of relying on step-by-step analysis of the problem, the conventional method, lateral thinking often produces solutions that only seem obvious in hindsight.
The term “lateral thinking” was coined by Edward de Bono (1967) in his book The Use of Lateral Thinking.
He illustrates the difference between lateral thinking and conventional logic-based thinking (referred to as vertical thinking) with the following lateral thinking example:
“If you were to take a set of toy blocks and build them upwards, each block resting firmly and squarely on the block below it, you would have an illustration of vertical thinking. With lateral thinking the blocks are scattered around. They may be connected to each other loosely or not at all. But the pattern that may eventually emerge can be as useful as the vertical structure” (p. 11).
Lateral thinking can be applied to any problem and is often seen in professions such as advertising and product design, where creativity is highly valued.
11 Top Lateral Thinking Examples
- Finding Alternatives: Using a car engine to generate electricity in your home during a blackout
- Working Around Problems: Starting a business when you are having trouble getting a job
- Generating Tech Solutions: Using a drone to deliver packages instead of a traditional delivery truck
- Reverse Thinking: Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve, think about what you don’t want to achieve, and find ways to avoid it.
- Seeking New Solutions: Using virtual reality technology for mental health treatment to save time and money
- Seeing Opportunity in Disaster: Using mobile apps for remote learning and education during a lockdown
- Finding a Way: Using crowdfunding to finance small business and startup projects
- Creating New Avenues: Using the sharing economy such as Airbnb and Uber to make use of underutilized resources
- Being Resourceful: Using green roofs and walls for urban agriculture and sustainable building design
- Thinking Outside the Box: Using a magnifying glass to light a fire when you realize you don’t have matches or a lighter (this is the inverse of functional fixedness)
- Divergent Thinking: Using a coconut shell as a bowl because you don’t have any bowls nearby
10 Lateral Thinking Case Studies
1. Goal: Make More Money
Lateral thinking involves reframing the problem in a way that allows us to see a solution that would not be seen with conventional vertical thinking.
For example, if the problem is that you want to make more money, the logic-based vertical thinking solution leads to a very logical solution: work more.
Working more means more money will be transferred to your possession; problem solved.
Unfortunately, this solution can lead to a person taking multiple jobs and working nearly every waking moment of their existence. Yes, this will generate more money. But at what expense?
Lateral thinking suggests reframing of the problem: save more money. This results in more money being in your pocket, which is the ultimate goal.
However, instead of working three jobs, the lateral solution is to spend less money. Stop buying over-priced coffee and instead purchase a good coffee maker. Instead of buying a new car, buy one second-hand.
2. The Fearless Girl
Lateral thinking can be seen in some of the most clever marketing campaigns in history. Often, the ad is amazingly simple, yet powerful. The simplicity adds to its impact.
One example can be seen in the marketing campaign known as The Fearless Girl by State Street Global Advisors.
Instead of implementing the usual strategy of producing TV ads with a respected spokesperson or having short scenes of testimonials from average citizens that have had great financial success investing in stocks, they took a quite creative approach.
They hired Kristen Visbal to sculpt a bronze figure of a young female child standing boldly, hands on hips, and placed her directly in front of the quite large and intimidating Charging Bull in the financial district of Manhattan in New York City.
The goal was to advertise an index fund which was focused on gender diverse companies that have a high percentage of women in senior leadership. That index fund is represented by the ticker symbol SHE.
3. Measuring Income Inequality
Economic equality is recognized as the source of many ills in the world today. From civil unrest to the dysfunctional family unit, when humans feel as though they do not have economic opportunity, while others live lavishly, many troubles will ensue.
The vertical thinking approach to measuring economic inequality involves a mathematical formula consisting of various economic and population indexes.
In his seminal paper (Atkinson, 1970) states that the “…conventional method of approach is misleading….I hope that these conventional measures will be rejected in favor of direct consideration of the properties that we should like the social welfare function to display” (p. 262)
He then took an unusual approach to measuring the concept by including social welfare issues. In his own words:
“Lateral thinking led to the results on the measurement of risk being applied to the problem of measuring income inequality. In this, and in other areas of economics, lateral thinking has made a significant contribution” (Atkinson, 2011, p. 319).
His use of lateral thinking has had a profound impact in economics, demonstrating that “…economics is primarily a social and moral science” (Wernerová, 2019, p. 1).
4. Challenging Assumptions: The Nine Dots Problem
The nine dots problem is well-known to most readers. Nonetheless, it is offered by de Bono (1970) as an example of how lateral thinking is accomplished by challenging assumptions.
As de Bono explains:
“In challenging assumptions, one challenges the necessity of boundaries and limits and one challenges the validity of individual concepts. As in lateral thinking in general there is no question in attacking the assumptions as wrong…It is simply a matter of trying to restructure patterns. And by definition, assumptions are patterns which usually escape the restructuring process” (p. 49).
The problem goes like this: Nine dots are arranged in three vertical rows of three. The goal is to connect the nine dots using only four straight lines, without raising the pencil from the paper.
The solution is derived by letting go of the common assumption that one cannot extend the line past the outer boundaries of the dots. Although this rule is never stated in the instructions, people have this assumption fixed in their mind.
“If one breaks through this assumption and does go beyond the boundary then the problem is easily solved…” (p. 50).
5. In the Classroom
In many of his books, de Bono likes to use classroom examples of how teachers can help their students develop lateral thinking. This is a noble cause and one reason that his work has had such an enduring impact in the study of problem-solving, divergent thinking, and creativity.
One exercise he recommends is for teachers to ask students to design a useful product. Some specific suggestions include:
- an apple-picking machine
- a cup that cannot spill
- a device to help cars park
The purpose of this activity is to show that there can be different solutions to the same problem. It is the thinking process that is so much more valuable than the end result.
“Though an idea may seem silly in itself it can still lead to something useful…No one is silly for the sake of being silly no matter how it might appear to other people. There must be a reason why something made sense to the person who drew it at the moment when it was drawn. What it appears to other people is not so important if one is trying to encourage lateral thinking. In any case whatever the reason behind a design and however silly it may be it can still be a most useful stimulus to further ideas” (de Bono, 1970, p. 61).
6. Reconceptualizing the Good Life
Some people in Western cultures start to feel a great deal of stress as a result of constantly striving to have a better life. They believe that having material objects such as a big house with a three-car garage, dining in over-priced restaurants, and wearing expensive jewelry are signs of living the good life.
This is typical vertical thinking that is defined culturally. Possessing expensive material goods equals a better life.
However, lateral thinking would change the definition of “better life.” With lateral thinking, the concept is defined as feeling relaxed, leading a slower pace of life, and spending time on hobbies.
So, the solution is simple, and many people have taken this step. Instead of working harder to purchase more material goods, they sell all they have and move to a country with a much lower cost of living.
Many Americans have done just that. For example, many Californians are selling their houses (known for expensive real estate) and moving to small beach towns in Mexico.
They arrive at the solution they want: to have a better life, but do so by escaping conventional norms through lateral thinking and taking a different path.
7. The Best TV Ad in History
Yes, crowning something as “best in history” is not an exact science. It’s a value judgment that is subjective and open to a lot of debate. However, there is no doubt that at least one of the best TV ads in history is the 1984 ad by Apple.
It was a groundbreaking piece of cinematography for a TV ad, produced by Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner.
The reason the ad is considered so astounding is more than just the visual aesthetics, but has a lot more to do with the message. Instead of relying on vertical thinking and boasting about the computing power or the advanced graphics chip, the ad says nothing about those features.
The ad is an exercise in lateral thinking like never before seen in the advertising world. It makes a statement about conformity, bucking the establishment, and avid individualism.
8. The “Why” Technique
The “why” lateral thinking technique by de Bono is designed to create discomfort with the information that has been provided. The process involves the teacher making a statement, followed by the student asking “why.” This exchange is repeated at length; each explanation to be questioned.
“The usual purpose of “why” is to elicit information. One wants to be comforted with some explanation which one can accept and be satisfied with. The lateral use of why is quite opposite. The intention is to create discomfort with any explanation. By refusing to be comforted with an explanation one tries to look at things in a different way and so increases the possibility of restructuring the pattern” (de Bono, 1970, p. 53).
The process is a little more complex if done properly. Rather than simply repeating the word “why,” much like the habit of a child, the serious student will be more focused. The question should be directed to a specific aspect of the previous explanation.
Even if the teacher knows of the true reason, to get the most out of this exercise, they should phrase their answer that allows enough flexibility to continue the probe.
9. Applied to Students
Srikongchan et al. (2021) pointed out that many instructional approaches in the classroom fail to foster creativity in school children.
Students “…are directed to think in the same pattern to understand the contents, working the projects, and generating the solutions. They are not encouraged to think differently or think out of the box” (p. 234).
The researchers implemented a backward instructional design by having students participate in 9 different lateral thinking learning activities.
A total of 60 fifth-grade students in an Information Technology course in Thailand took part in the study, and their degree of creativity was assessed both before and after the lateral thinking activities.
The results indicated that students:
“…significantly improved their creative thinking scores” when comparing before and after scores. “It can be implied that the learning activities and learning experience of lateral thinking could provide students a meaningful learning process…and help the students developed creative thinking” (p. 243).
10. The Reverse Thinking Technique
At the center of lateral thinking is the objective to look at a problem from a different perspective. The reversal technique takes similar aim.
The process leads to a way of looking at a situation that is obviously wrong, perhaps even ridiculous. This is done to escape the shackles of conventional vertical thinking.
For instance, the teacher explains that a policeman directs traffic. Then, the students are instructed to engage in reverse thinking, which leads to: the traffic controls the policeman, or, the policeman disorganizes the traffic.
This leads to a consideration of natural traffic flow, or if traffic lights would be superior to a policeman.
It doesn’t matter if the solution generated actually makes sense in the beginning; the point is that the student/problem-solver is moving in the right direction. The purpose is to be provocative and to consider the problem from an alternative point of view.
Lateral Thinking Strengths
1. Discovering Overlooked Ideas
One of the most valuable strengths of lateral thinking is the consideration of overlooked aspects of a problem.
Because people are so locked-in to vertical thinking, which is logical and rational, they can fail to see all aspects of a situation.
Lateral thinking encourages the examination of all aspects of a matter. Even if those elements seem inconsequential, one never knows how valuable they may be unless they are at least considered.
2. Generating a Different Perspective
Several of the techniques utilized in lateral thinking have the explicit goal of looking at a problem from a different perspective.
This is at the heart of divergent thinking or creativity, or the oft-overused saying “think outside the box.”
“In lateral thinking one is not looking for the right answer but for a different arrangement of information which will provoke a different way of looking at the situation” (de Bono, 1970, p. 71).
Even if that different way of looking seems silly and invaluable, it may actually lead to someone else having a great idea that is the exact solution needed.
3. Constructively Challenge the Status Quo
Challenging the status quo enables the problem-solver to generate useful solutions.
So often people become used to using a product a certain way or going through a procedure in a specific manner. Those routines can become so automatic that they are just accepted as standard operating procedures.
However, the techniques of lateral thinking force people to question those givens and seek alternatives.
By challenging the assumptions of why we do the things we do, we take the first step to creating a better process, which may be more efficient or may actually be a complete overhaul of standard practices.
Lateral Thinking Weaknesses
1. Conceptual Redundancy
Lateral thinking has quite a bit in common with divergent thinking, innovation, and creativity.
These concepts all involve looking at situations from a different perspective and generating solutions that are unique and non-conventional.
Since there is so much overlap in these very similar concepts, one has to wonder why is there a need to invent a new term for those that already exist?
If divergent thinking and lateral thinking result in the same unique solution, then why is there a need to have two names for the same horse?
2. Fails to Acknowledge Research
One weakness of lateral thinking is that de Bono often ignores established research on thinking and problem-solving.
There has been a tremendous amount of rigid scientific research on heuristics, divergent thinking, and methods to improve problem-solving.
However, that research is unacknowledged, not even mentioned in de Bono’s many books.
To be accepted as a scientific theory, it is necessary to explain how one’s own postulations fit with other theories, particularly those theories that have earned wide acceptance due to the body of solid science behind them.
3. Reliance on Riddles, Stories, and Testimonials
Lateral thinking has been termed a “pseudoscience” by critics. Because of its reliance on riddles, fictional stories, and testimonials as support for the theory’s efficacy, it fails to meet standard criteria for legitimacy.
Although de Bono offers-up narratives as illustrating key concepts in lateral thinking, it is not the kind of evidence that is considered valid in disciplines such as modern psychology.
As Antonio Melechi succinctly concluded:
“Rather than accumulate independent empirical evidence of its efficacy, the lateral thinking movement still opts to festoon itself in anecdotes, hearsay and testimonials.”
Lateral thinking involves approaching problems in ways that result in a novel solution. Instead of taking the usual path of conventional problem-solving methods such as logic, the theory postulates that lateral thinking offers a valuable alternative.
There are several techniques presented by de Bono (1967; 1970) that facilitate lateral thinking and the generation of novel solutions. These techniques involve questioning the assumptions of the problem, challenging the usual explanations by asking “why,” and engaging in reverse thinking.
Lateral thinking can result in discovering previously overlooked aspects of a problem, helping people see the problem from a different perspective, and challenging accepted practices and conceptions.
On the other side of the coin, critics would like to see the theory supported by empirical evidence and a clear explanation of how it differs from theories that have solid scientific support.
Atkinson, A. B. (1970). On the measurement of inequality. Journal of Economic Theory, 2, 244-263.
Atkinson, A. B. (2011). On lateral thinking. The Journal of Economic Inequality, 9(3), 319-328.
de Bono, E. (1967). The use of lateral thinking. Jonathan Cape
de Bono, E. (1977). Lateral Thinking: a textbook of creativity. Penguin Books.
Srikongchan, W., Kaewkuekool, S., & Mejaleurn, S. (2021). Backward instructional design based learning activities to developing students’ creative thinking with lateral thinking technique. International Journal of Instruction, 14(2), 233-252.
Wernerová, Barbora. (2019). Economic inequality according Atkinson. SHS Web of Conferences, 61. 01034. https://doi.org/10.1051/shsconf/20196101034