Understanding Lateral Thinking Skills: Techniques for Innovative Problem Solving

Are you tired of facing the same problems repeatedly, with no idea how to solve them? Do you struggle to come up with new and creative solutions to difficult situations?

If so, it’s time to start thinking laterally.

What is Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono in his book “The Use of Lateral Thinking” in 1967. It’s a creative approach to problem-solving that emphasizes generating new ideas and solutions through a non-linear, out-of-the-box approach. Unlike traditional problem-solving methods that rely on logical and linear thinking, lateral thinking encourages exploring multiple possibilities and solutions, even if they seem unlikely or far-fetched.

In lateral thinking, the focus is not on finding the “right” answer but rather on generating a range of ideas and considering different perspectives. It involves breaking free from existing patterns and exploring new ways of looking at a problem. This approach can be particularly useful in situations where traditional methods have failed, or where new and innovative solutions are required.

Lateral thinking is often contrasted with vertical thinking, which is more concerned with logical thinking and following a linear path to find the solution. While vertical thinking can be effective in some situations, it often relies on preconceived notions and assumptions, limiting the range of possible solutions.

Lateral thinking skills can be developed through practice and can be useful in a wide range of situations, including brainstorming sessions, strategic planning, and problem-solving. By encouraging new perspectives and challenging conventional thinking, lateral thinking can lead to breakthroughs and innovative solutions that might not have been possible using traditional methods.

The Brain Processes Information in Different Ways

Lateral thinking is a problem-solving technique that encourages people to approach problems from different perspectives and think creatively. Lateral thinking is based on the idea that the brain processes information in different ways depending on the task at hand.

The brain has two modes of thinking: convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking is the ability to find a single, correct answer to a problem. This type of thinking is usually associated with traditional intelligence tests, where the focus is on finding the right solution. In contrast, divergent thinking is the ability to generate multiple ideas and solutions to a problem. Lateral thinking focuses on divergent thinking and encourages individuals to explore multiple avenues of thought, even if they may seem unconventional or counterintuitive at first.

Lateral thinking seeks to break the patterns and assumptions that may be limiting an individual’s ability to come up with new ideas. It encourages individuals to think outside the box and consider alternative approaches that may be more effective or efficient. For example, instead of following a step-by-step process to solve a problem, lateral thinking may encourage individuals to approach the problem in a non-linear way or to consider how unrelated fields or industries have solved similar problems.

One technique often used in lateral thinking is random stimulation, where outside stimuli are used to generate new ideas. This could be something as simple as taking a walk or listening to music or something more structured, like brainstorming sessions with a diverse group of individuals. These external stimuli can help shift an individual’s thinking away from established patterns and generate new ideas and approaches.

Example of Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a divergent thinking method that challenges individuals to think beyond the obvious solutions and consider alternative perspectives to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.

An excellent example of lateral thinking is when a company was faced with high real estate costs and needed to reduce the amount of space it was using. Instead of following the conventional approach of cutting staff or reducing the size of cubicles, the company explored unconventional ideas and came up with the idea of converting storage rooms into offices. This approach not only saved square footage but also provided a unique and innovative workspace for employees.

Another example of lateral thinking is when a restaurant faced the problem of a high number of food wastage. Instead of throwing away the food, the restaurant implemented a “pay what you want” policy for the leftover food. The approach not only reduced food wastage but also attracted customers who were willing to pay for a meal and donate extra money to a charitable cause.

A third example of lateral thinking is when a company faced the challenge of promoting its brand in a highly competitive market. Instead of using conventional advertising methods, the company came up with the idea of creating a viral video campaign that involved social media influencers. The campaign not only reached a wider audience but also created a buzz around the brand, leading to increased sales and brand recognition.

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Techniques for Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking skills can be developed through specific techniques and exercises. Here are a few examples:

Mind Maps

Mind maps are visual tool that helps individuals brainstorm, organize, and generate new ideas in a structured manner. The process of creating a mind map begins with a central idea or concept that is placed in the centre of a blank page or whiteboard. From there, branches radiate outwards, representing related ideas or subtopics. The branches themselves can then spawn further sub-branches, allowing for an almost infinite number of ideas to be added and connected to one another.

The use of colours, images, and symbols is often incorporated into the creation of a mind map, making it an engaging and memorable experience. This is because the brain is better at remembering and recalling visual information, and mind maps take advantage of this aspect of the brain. Furthermore, mind maps encourage individuals to think creatively and critically by allowing them to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts or ideas.

The benefits of using mind maps are numerous. They can help to break down complex information into smaller, more manageable pieces, making it easier to understand and remember. Mind maps can also be used to identify patterns or trends, generate new ideas, or solve problems. They are useful in various settings, including academic, professional, and personal environments.

Random Word Association

Random word association is a simple yet effective technique used to stimulate creative thinking by prompting a person to link a random word to a problem or idea they are trying to solve. By breaking the person’s usual thought patterns, the technique aims to generate new ideas and solutions that might not have been considered otherwise.

The process of random word association involves providing the person with a word and then asking them to explore connections between that word and their problem or idea. The word can be generated randomly, or it can be chosen intentionally to direct the person’s thinking towards a particular area.

For example, if someone is trying to come up with new marketing ideas for a product, they might be given the word “jungle.” This seemingly unrelated word could inspire ideas such as using a jungle-themed advertising campaign or hosting a promotion at a zoo.

The technique is based on the idea that the brain naturally seeks patterns and associations, and by introducing a random word, it can spark new connections and possibilities that may have been overlooked before.

Random word association can be used in a variety of contexts, from brainstorming sessions in the workplace to personal problem-solving. It is a useful tool for anyone looking to approach a problem or idea from a fresh perspective and break out of their usual thinking patterns.

Reverse Thinking

Reverse thinking is a cognitive approach that involves reversing the conventional way of problem-solving. It involves considering the problem from an opposite perspective, where instead of trying to find a solution to the problem, one tries to create it. This unconventional approach can lead to the identification of solutions that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The idea behind reverse thinking is to break away from the usual patterns of thought and explore new possibilities by considering the opposite of what is expected. By examining the problem from a different angle, one can uncover the assumptions and biases that might have been hindering the problem-solving process. This technique also helps to identify potential risks and pitfalls that may arise during the implementation of a solution.

Reverse thinking can be useful in various domains, including business, innovation, and creativity. For instance, in business, reverse thinking can be applied to identify the factors that lead to the failure of a product or service. By considering what can go wrong, businesses can improve their products or services by addressing the identified issues.

The Six Thinking Hats

The Six Thinking Hats is a powerful brainstorming technique that encourages team members to look at a problem or situation from different perspectives. Also developed by Edward de Bono, this technique provides a structured approach to problem-solving that allows for more comprehensive and creative thinking.

Each hat represents a different perspective or mode of thinking that the team members adopt. The black hat represents critical thinking, where the team members analyze the situation and identify potential risks and obstacles. The white hat, on the other hand, represents objective thinking, where the team members gather facts and data to inform their decision-making. The red hat represents emotional thinking, where the team members share their feelings and intuitions about the situation. The yellow hat represents positive thinking, where the team members identify opportunities and potential benefits. The green hat represents creative thinking, where the team members generate innovative ideas and explore new possibilities. Finally, the blue hat represents organizational thinking, where the team members evaluate and plan the overall process of the brainstorming session.

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By adopting different hats at different stages of the brainstorming process, team members are able to examine a problem or situation from multiple angles. This approach can help to identify hidden opportunities, challenge assumptions, and generate a wide range of potential solutions. It also allows team members to explore their own biases and perspectives, leading to a more collaborative and inclusive approach to problem-solving.

Why Are Lateral Thinking Skills Important?

Lateral thinking skills are an essential tool for problem-solving in today’s fast-paced and constantly changing world. They help individuals and organizations to:

Approach Problems Creatively

Lateral thinking is a powerful problem-solving tool that encourages individuals and organizations to approach problems with a unique perspective. It involves thinking outside the box and breaking away from conventional thinking patterns, allowing for the exploration of alternative ideas and solutions that may not have been considered before.

By employing lateral thinking, individuals can generate innovative solutions to complex problems, leading to increased efficiency and effectiveness. Lateral thinking can also help individuals to identify potential opportunities that may have gone unnoticed, allowing them to stay ahead of the curve in their respective industries.

In addition, lateral thinking can foster a creative culture within organizations, encouraging employees to think critically and challenge conventional wisdom. This can lead to a more dynamic and innovative workplace that is better equipped to respond to changing market conditions and customer needs.

Moreover, lateral thinking can help individuals to overcome obstacles that might have seemed insurmountable using traditional problem-solving methods. It can lead to breakthroughs and discoveries that would not have been possible without a willingness to take risks and explore new ideas.

Solve Problems Quickly and Effectively

Problem-solving is a crucial skill that enables individuals and organizations to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. However, the process of finding effective solutions to complex problems can be challenging, especially when there are no obvious or straightforward answers. One approach to problem-solving that has gained popularity in recent years is lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking is a creative problem-solving technique that encourages individuals to generate multiple potential solutions by looking at problems from different perspectives. Instead of relying on a single approach or set of assumptions, lateral thinking prompts individuals to explore a wide range of possibilities and consider alternative perspectives.

By encouraging the generation of multiple potential solutions, lateral thinking can help individuals and organizations to solve problems more quickly and effectively. Rather than getting stuck on a single approach, lateral thinking enables individuals to consider a range of possibilities and select the most promising option. This not only increases the likelihood of finding an effective solution but also saves time and resources that might otherwise be wasted on ineffective approaches.

Moreover, lateral thinking can help individuals and organizations identify innovative solutions that might not have been considered otherwise. By challenging assumptions and exploring unconventional ideas, lateral thinking can uncover new possibilities and opportunities that might have been overlooked. This can give individuals and organizations a competitive edge and help them to achieve their goals more efficiently.

Stand Out in a Competitive Environment

In today’s fast-paced and highly competitive business world, it is becoming increasingly challenging for individuals and organizations to stay ahead of the game. To achieve success and stay relevant, it is essential to possess lateral thinking skills, which can enable them to think creatively and find new and unique solutions to problems that may arise.

Lateral thinking is a problem-solving technique that involves thinking outside the box and exploring alternative ways of thinking that may not be immediately obvious. It encourages individuals to come up with unconventional solutions that may differ from the norm, enabling them to stand out in a crowded market.

Organizations that possess lateral thinking skills can approach challenges with a fresh perspective, leading to unique and innovative solutions that set them apart from their competitors. This, in turn, can lead to increased brand recognition, customer loyalty, and revenue growth.

Furthermore, lateral thinking skills can enable individuals and organizations to identify opportunities that may have gone unnoticed by their competitors. By thinking creatively and exploring all options, they can uncover new markets and business ventures that can help them gain a competitive advantage.

Handle Difficult Situations

When faced with a difficult situation, it’s common for individuals and organizations to rely on their past experiences and traditional problem-solving methods. However, this approach can often lead to a lack of innovation and a failure to find effective solutions. This is where lateral thinking comes in.

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Lateral thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves thinking outside the box and considering unconventional perspectives. By encouraging individuals and organizations to break free from their traditional ways of thinking, lateral thinking can help generate fresh ideas and creative solutions to difficult problems.

One of the key advantages of lateral thinking is that it encourages people to approach problems from a different angle. Rather than trying to solve the problem directly, lateral thinking prompts individuals and organizations to consider alternative solutions that may not be immediately apparent. This can lead to more effective and innovative approaches to tackling problems, resulting in better outcomes.

In addition to generating new ideas, lateral thinking can also help individuals and organizations overcome psychological barriers to problem-solving. By challenging assumptions and encouraging unconventional thinking, lateral thinking can help people to break free from mental blocks and come up with solutions that they may not have otherwise considered.

Create New Opportunities

Lateral thinking is a powerful tool that can help individuals and organizations create new opportunities and solve problems in innovative ways. By approaching problems with an open mind and exploring unconventional solutions, lateral thinking can break through the constraints of conventional thinking and uncover new possibilities.

One key aspect of lateral thinking is its focus on the problem statement. Rather than simply accepting the constraints of the problem as given, lateral thinking encourages individuals to challenge the assumptions underlying the problem and explore new perspectives and approaches. This can lead to breakthrough insights and novel solutions that were not previously considered.

Another important aspect of lateral thinking is its emphasis on exploration and experimentation. By trying out new ideas and approaches, individuals and organizations can uncover new opportunities and possibilities that may have been hidden or overlooked. This can help to generate new ideas, products, and services that can create value and differentiate organizations from their competitors.

Developing Your Lateral Thinking Skills

Like any skill, lateral thinking can be developed and improved through practice and training. Here are some tips for developing your lateral thinking skills:

Focus on Ideas, Not Right Answers

Lateral thinking is a powerful tool for complex problem solving that encourages individuals to generate innovative ideas and solutions. It involves breaking free from the constraints of traditional thinking patterns and embracing unconventional approaches to problem-solving. However, one of the main barriers to lateral thinking is functional fixedness, which is the tendency to view objects or situations in their traditional roles and fail to see their potential for other purposes.

To overcome functional fixedness and enhance lateral thinking skills, it is important to focus on generating ideas rather than searching for the “right” answer. This approach allows the solver to explore a wide range of possibilities, even those that may initially seem improbable or unconventional. By reframing the problem and exploring new perspectives, individuals can unlock their creativity and develop innovative solutions to complex challenges.

It is worth noting that lateral thinking does not disregard the importance of critical thinking or logical reasoning. Rather, it complements these skills by encouraging individuals to think outside the box and challenge assumptions. Lateral thinking is particularly useful when traditional problem-solving methods have failed or when the problem is complex and multi-faceted.

Use Techniques and Exercises

There are many specific techniques and exercises that can help develop lateral thinking skills, such as mind mapping, random word association, reverse thinking, and the Six Thinking Hats. Experiment with different techniques and find the ones that work best for you.

Look for Inspiration

Seek out inspiration from a variety of sources, such as books, articles, and podcasts. Exposing yourself to new ideas and ways of thinking can help stimulate your own creativity and lateral thinking skills.

Practice Creativity

Engage in creative activities outside of problem-solving, such as writing, drawing, or playing an instrument. These activities can help train your brain to think more creatively and support your lateral thinking skills.

Lateral Thinking in the Workplace

Lateral thinking is an important skill in the workplace, where problem-solving and innovation are critical to success. Here are some ways that lateral thinking can be applied in the workplace:

Interview Questions

When interviewing job candidates, ask questions that require lateral thinking skills. For example, “How would you design a shoe for an elephant?” This can help identify candidates who are creative problem solvers and think outside the box.


Encourage brainstorming sessions that focus on generating new ideas and approaches, rather than evaluating and critiquing existing ones. This can help stimulate creativity and encourage lateral thinking.


Collaboration can be a powerful tool for lateral thinking. By working with colleagues from different backgrounds and perspectives, individuals can gain new insights and generate innovative solutions.

Reducing Silos

Breaking down organizational silos can help encourage lateral thinking by providing opportunities for employees to collaborate and share ideas across departments and functions.


Lateral thinking skills are an essential tool for problem-solving and innovation in today’s world. By breaking out of conventional thinking patterns and exploring new ideas and approaches, individuals and organizations can create unique and innovative solutions that set them apart from their competitors. Developing lateral thinking skills takes practice and experimentation, but the benefits are well worth the effort. So next time you’re facing a problem, think laterally and see what creative solutions you can come up with.

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