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Lateral Thinking Stimulates Creativity and Innovation

By Paul Sloane

British inventor Edward de Bono coined the phrase “lateral thinking” as a counterpoint to conventional or vertical thinking. In conventional thinking people go forward in a predictable, direct fashion. Lateral thinking involves approaching the problem from new directions – literally from the side. De Bono defines the four main aspects of lateral thinking as:

  • The recognition of dominant polarizing ideas
  • The search for different ways of looking at things
  • A relaxation of the rigid control of vertical thinking
  • The use of chance

There are dominant ideas in every walk of life – the assumptions, rules and conventions that underpin systems and influence people’s thinking and attitudes. The idea that the Earth was flat or that the Earth was the center of the universe are examples of dominant ideas that polarized thought along set lines. Once the dominant ideas are in placeeverything else is viewed in a way that supports them. A paranoid person sees every attempt to help them as malevolent and manipulating. Someone who believes in a conspiracy theory will explain away any inconvenient facts as deliberately constructed by the powers behind the conspiracy. Most organizations have dominant ideas that polarize their view of the world. It is easy for us to criticize the makers of horse-drawn carriages who thought automobiles were silly contraptions that would never catch on. People now, however, are also the captives of established ideas.

A Technique for Lateral Thinking

A lateral thinking technique is to write down all the dominant ideas that apply to a particular situation and then deliberately challenge them. For example, the major airlines worked with these beliefs:

  • Customers want high standards of service
  • Issue tickets for all flights
  • Allocate seating in advance
  • Sell through travel agents
  • Fly to major airports because that is what business travelers want

Low-cost airlines broke all of these rules and created a new market. A good start with lateral thinking is to deliberately turn every assumption and dominant idea on its head and see where it leads.

Asking “what if” is a lateral thinking technique that helps explore possibilities and challenge assumptions simultaneously and stretches every dimension of an issue. Each question should be extreme to the point of being ridiculous. Consider a small charity that cares for homeless dogs. The challenge for the managers of the charity is, “How can we double our fundraising income?” The “what if” questions might be:

  • What if we had only one donor?
  • What if we had 10 million donors?
  • What if we had an unlimited marketing budget?
  • What if we had no marketing budget?
  • What if everyone looked after a homeless dog for a day?
  • What if dogs slept in beds and people slept in kennels?
  • What if dogs could speak?

The question “What if we only had one donor?” might suggest the charity target wealthy dog lovers to raise more funds from fewer donors. The charity could explore ways to do this and generate new ideas. “What if dogs could speak?” might suggest marketing strategies with speaking dogs or dog conversations. Each question generates stimulating lines of inquiry by testing the rules and dominant ideas’ boundaries that are assumed to apply to the problem. Start with a challenge and, individually or in a group, generate a short list of provocative “what if” questions. Take one and see where it leads. Follow the crazy train of thought and see what emerges. Starting with silly ideas often leads to radical insights and innovations.

The Role of Chance and Random Input

The role of chance in major inventions and scientific discoveries is well documented. Heinrich Hertz discovered the transmission of radio waves when some of his equipment produced a spark on the other side of the room. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when he noticed one of his old petri dishes had developed a mold that was resistant to bacteria. Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays accidentally when playing with a cathode ray tube. Christopher Columbus discovered America while looking for a route to India. The common theme is that someone with a curious mind set out to investigate things. When something unusual happens they study it and see how it can be used. The same methods can work today.

When looking for new ideas and fresh ways to do things random input can help. An effective brainstorming technique is to randomly choose a noun from the dictionary. Write down some associations or attributes of the word and then force fit connections between the word and its associations. Although the technique is often initially met with skepticism it is worth trying. Some words produce nothing worthwhile, but occasionally radical ideas are generated. The same approach works using a random object, picture, song, etc. Similarly a walk through a museum or art gallery can be useful when working on a difficult problem. The brain can make lateral connections between a variety of stimuli encountered and the problem.

A great deal of humor is based on lateral thinking. The comedian ridicules existing beliefs – he comes at an issue from unusual directions and makes unexpected connections to give the surprise that makes an audience laugh.

Using lateral thinking in everyday lives generates fresh, better ideas and can be great fun.

About the Author:

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation, a consultancy that helps improve innovation. He gives talks and workshops on leadership, creativity and innovation. He is the author of 17 books; the most recent is The Innovative Leader, published by Kogan-Page. Contact Paul Sloane at psloane (at) or visit