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Lateral thinking

What is lateral thinking?

What is lateral thinking

The etymology of the word “lateral” originally comes from the Latin “lateralis,” meaning “relating to the sides of an object.” Lateral thinking is also sometimes called “divergent thinking.” It differs from traditional thinking because its focus gets redirected to secondary, most unexpected, or unseen objects. In simple terms, lateral thinking allows us to look at a problem from non-obvious angles and to generate creative solutions from this perspective.

The psychologist Edward de Bono coined the term “lateral thinking” in 1967. In his book “Lateral Thinking: An Introduction,” Edward De Bono contrasted lateral thinking with logical thinking. As with logical thinking, we draw a justified conclusion from proven factors and premises; with lateral thinking, we do not limit ourselves by the rules or principles of logic. Thus, a separate lateral logic emerges.

The scope of lateral thinking

From Edward de Bono's point of view, lateral thinking has emerged as an answer to the types of questions which you cannot answer through logical thinking or any other types of thinking (and there are an overwhelming number of them). That is why the field of application of lateral thinking is incredibly broad. Firstly, it is relevant for new product development when it is necessary to take a fresh look at the market and the current audience to see free niches or business development opportunities. Also, lateral thinking works well in budget planning when you need to find better ways of allocating it.

Since lateral thinking means thinking outside the box, it is suitable for situations where fresh and relevant ideas are needed. It can be applied to any field, from PR to SMM to sales. Both junior specialists and executives can use it when proposing strategies to their teams. Lateral thinking will help create an online lesson if, for example, you want to engage students with informal and interactive practices. You could even say that lateral thinking characterises a modern and in-demand professional in the labour market.

Lateral thinking methods

Lateral thinking methods

You can find a variety of lateral thinking methods, but here are the most effective ones:

Six Thinking Hats technique

This method is similar to the brainstorming method, but unlike it, it involves analysing all ideas, no matter how absurd, which, paradoxically, makes finding solutions much easier and more effective. What you need to do is take or imagine six different coloured hats, which will pass from participant to participant in a circle, thus redirecting everyone's thoughts and allowing them to look at the topic of discussion from different angles. Each hat represents a different angle of view, namely:

  • White is informational. A person wearing this hat lists facts and figures and provides general information: what we have, what's missing, what you need to consider etc.
  • Red is emotional. A person wearing this hat tracks any feelings and emotions relevant to the problem and listens to their intuition.
  • Green is creative. A participant in this hat generates new ideas and suggestions, from the most trivial solution to the most unconventional one.
  • Black is critical. This person expresses their doubts about each idea and evaluates the shortcomings and challenges associated with its implementation.
  • Yellow is optimistic. The person considers the benefits and advantages of the idea under discussion and its implementation's positive aspects.
  • Blue is organisational. That is the facilitator's hat, which summarises everything said by the other participants and records their inferences and lateral thinking ideas that may be useful.

Here is how it works in practice. First, each participant can put on any hat. Then, they express their thoughts according to the direction represented by the colour of the hat. Finally, the participants can either swap these hats in the process or wear them in the “one meeting, one hat distribution” format.

Synectics

According to psychologist Bono, who is the author of this method (as well as the six thinking hats technique), methods similar to synectics can eliminate the existing stereotypes of thinking. Moreover, using them, you can look at the problem in such a way that they do not interfere with making the optimal decision. To do this, you need to:      

  • Describe your issue as briefly as possible, only using two to three words or a terminological definition.
  • Describe how people most often solve similar problems.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of someone who needs to solve the problem in a non-standard way, but in a different role (for example, as a customer, buyer, seller, or someone you are not).
  • Imagine how any fictional character or historical figure would solve the problem.

A random word

Use this technique when the discussion comes to a dead end. For example, you can combine it with the talking hats technique in cases where participants no longer have fresh ideas or cannot reach common ground. Let the moderator ask each team member to name a random word that came to their mind. Then try to associate each of the quoted words with the problem you are solving. During the discussion, new work areas and ideas may appear regarding the topics already raised.

Going the extra mile

People frequently have limited time, budget, or other resources. But what if there were no such restrictions? Imagine how you would solve the problem if no factors held you back. Once you've sketched out a list of ideas, think about how you can optimise them to integrate them into the existing framework, albeit with some concessions.

All these lateral thinking methods will help you, regardless of their field of application and your profession.

Lateral thinking algorithm

Lateral thinking algorithm

Marketer Philip Kotler used the theory proposed by Edward de Bono to formulate his universal algorithm for using lateral thinking in just three steps:

  1. Select the focus. You need to decide on the problem you will consider and focus only on it right off the bat. This issue is the starting point; it is impossible to implement any idea without its solution. Therefore, you need to analyse it from different angles.
  2. Break the pattern. After that, it is necessary to break the usual order of actions and the logic of the formulated idea. Step away from the accepted standards in the direction of what would seem ridiculous from the outside. If you feel that you are thinking or suggesting something incredibly stupid, it’s okay – that's how it should be.
  3. Establish a logical connection. Now you need to rationalise your second absurd suggestion. That is the most difficult step, requiring time and creativity, which completes the algorithm and allows you to achieve the desired result. Think about how you can adapt your crazy idea to the current conditions, soften it, but keep the essence.

This lateral thinking scheme is applicable in absolutely any field of activity.

Identifying and developing lateral thinking

So, how do you develop lateral thinking? It's not easy to master, so don't worry if you can't do it. Instead, incorporate these methods into your life and practice them regularly:     

  • Find a new approach to any habitual activity, from brushing your teeth to filing paperwork.
  • Criticise your usual patterns and solutions, even if you are happy with them.
  • Make time for creative activities, get a creative hobby. ъ
  • Try to find new uses for old things and tools.
  • Set aside time for reflection and searching for new ideas.

You can also use the following techniques to develop lateral thinking:

  • Come up with silly and nonsensical ideas about everything you see. You can turn this into a regular exercise: open-up any picture on the internet and come up with an innovative backstory of how it was made.
  • Dare to experiment. For instance, coming up with a new style is about breaking stereotypical thinking, which helps to change your internal sense of self and, therefore, your behaviour pattern. It also includes doing things that you have never done before – for example, going to the cinema all by yourself.

The challenges of lateral thinking

As lateral thinking is creative thinking, you also need to allocate extra time for it, which can prevent you from meeting your deadlines. Furthermore, lateral thinking cannot guarantee you the 'only right solution', as it aims to help you find the original approach, not the best one. In this sense, lateral thinking is risky, especially if you might lose something if you make a mistake. Sometimes, it is better to opt for classical logical thinking at the expense of an unconventional approach to benefit the result.

Examples of lateral thinking

Examples of lateral thinking

A prime example of lateral thinking is lateral marketing. Unlike traditional marketing, which focuses on improving existing offers, lateral marketing aims to develop new offers based on old ones. This is how, for example, ready-made frozen pizzas that you can cook in the microwave or food delivery came into being. In the first case, the team may have arrived at the idea by answering the question, “How can people eat pizza if they don't want to cook and go to a restaurant?” And in the second case, they could answer the question: “How can people have a snack if there is no food on hand and no way to leave the house?”

Lateral thinking exercises (with answers)

Please don't read the answers to the problems before solving them yourself!

Task from Edward de Bono

A moneylender has come to a debtor for money, but the debtor does not have it and will not have it any time soon. Then the lender proposes the following deal to the debtor: he will throw two stones into a sack, one black, and one white. If the debtor's daughter draws the white stone, the debt will be forgiven. The debt will also be forgiven if she draws the black stone, but the girl will marry the moneylender. However, if the debtor and his daughter refuse to participate, he will take their property.

The debtor agreed. Then the moneylender leans over the path and picks up two stones, but the girl notices that the moneylender is cheating: both stones are black.

What should the girl do to avoid marrying the hated moneylender and to save her father from his debt?

Answer: There is no correct answer, since this task aims to develop creative thinking, where the main mission is to end the story with a happy outcome for the debtor and his daughter. However, Edward de Bono suggests the following answer: the girl should take one pebble from the bag without others noticing its colour. Then, she should immediately drop it into a pile of similar stones and offer the moneylender to get the other one from the pouch. After all, if he pulls out the black stone, it means that the girl dropped the white one. And the moneylender will not dare confess to the deception.

Puzzles and riddles with answers

  • A customer in a café ordered a cup of coffee, but suddenly found a fly floating in it. He called the waiter over and asked him to replace the coffee. When the waiter brought in a new cup, the customer claimed that it was the same beverage. He said that the waiter had just fished out the fly and poured the drink into another cup. How did the customer figure it out? 
    Answer: the customer had time to add sugar to the coffee before he found the fly in it.
  • Two miners crawled out of a coal mine. When they came out into the light, it turned out that one of them had a perfectly clean face, while the other one was dirty. However, the one who had a clean face went to wash it. Why? 
    Answer: the one who had a clean face looked at his friend and thought that since he was dirty, logically, they both had to get dirty. And the one who had a dirty face saw his friend's clean face and thought the opposite.
  • Twenty skilful musicians play in front of a full house of people, but no one listens to them. Why? 
    Answer: they are playing basketball, and people are watching, not listening.

If you need to dig deeper into the topic, a special training programme on lateral thinking or the book Lateral Thinking: An Introduction by Edward de Bono, the founder of this type of thinking, can help. Both will teach you how to think creatively and find a way out, even in situations where there seems to be no way out.

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