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Lateral Thinking – How not to think Vertically

Lateral Thinking

Lateral ThinkingSome big ideas have become commonplace, and everyone understands them. Others have become commonplace terms, which  we often misuse. Lateral Thinking is one example of the latter. Yet it’s had a big impact over the last fifty years and will, I suspect, continue to do so over the next fifty.

Lateral Thinking is the brainchild of Maltese thinker and educator, Edward de Bono. It first appeared in his short 1967 book, ‘The Use of Lateral Thinking’. And it’s currently still in print, as ‘Lateral Thinking: An Introduction’ (US|UK). But since then, he’s written a whole library on this and related topics.

Why Lateral Thinking?

Edward de Bono used the the term lateral thinking to contrast with a more familiar thinking style. He observed that, ever since the classical Greek era, thinkers have had a reverence for logical thinking. In this, we follow a rational sequence of cause and effect from the data or a desired outcome. He calls this ‘vertical thinking’.

Vertical thinkers analyse the possibilities that are evident in a situation. In his first book, he tells a simple story where a protagonist is offered three choices. What should she do? De Bono cleverly traces a logical thought sequence that we naturally follow. For each option, we examine how it may play out against a desired outcome. No option is perfect, so the vertical thinker will select the ‘best’.

But what if the protagonist thought equally about options that were not on offer to her? Could she find a better solution? This is a process de Bono describes as ‘Lateral Thinking’. In the extract below, we reprint the problem as a tease. Can you find a better solution? De Bono does. He finds a solution that gives the girl and her father their optimal outcome. If you can’t find it… You’ll need to buy the book (US|UK)!

The Black Pebble - A Lateral Thinking Challenge
The Black Pebble – A Lateral Thinking Challenge

What is Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking is a thought process that steps outside of the constraints with which a problem is expressed. Hence, the common alternative term: ‘thinking outside the box’. Because it refuses to focus on the evident options, I like to think of lateral thinking as being about a willingness to break the rules. Or, better yet, to set them aside.


So, Lateral Thinking is a problem solving approach that takes an original route, by discarding the obvious options. De Bono suggests we leave traditional modes of thought behind. And, in particular, we must discard any preconceptions that arise from the way a problem is framed.

In the black pebble story, there are three obvious options that come about from the framing. None of them is satisfactory. So, the girl in the story must change her focus entirely, to find a solution that works for her.

What about Logic? The Greeks must have Known Something

Of course they did. But there are limitations. If you accept the options that are there, you often create a ‘zero-sum game’. The balance of outcomes is set at the start. By drawing in alternative options, you can sometimes create a win-win. As a result, Lateral Thinking is a valuable tool for negotiators.

Instead of trying to dig deeper, de Bono says find a new place for your hole. Or try building a ladder instead! And he has created a set of processes that give us deliberate, systematic, repeatable ways of doing this.

Definition of Lateral Thinking

When we can get one, we do like a definitive definition, here at Pocketblog. In this case, we have de Bono’s own website to thank for this one.

Lateral thinking is the process of using information to bring about creativity and insight restructuring. Lateral thinking can be learned, practised and used. It is possible to acquire skill in it just as it is possible to acquire skill in mathematics.’


How To section

Edward do Bono has spent a large part of his career devising innovative lateral thinking tools. He classifies them into four groups:

  1. Idea-generating tools
    These help you find alternative paths, which escape your current thinking patterns.
  2. Focus tools
    These help to open your mind to new ideas and possibilities.
  3. Harvest tools
    These help you maximize value you get from the ideas you generate.
  4. Treatment tools
    These ground the wilder ideas you generate, by testing them against real world constraints, resources, and support.

We can list a few of his most successful tools:

  • Po – a provocation or a statement of possibility
  • Six thinking hats – six different ways of approaching a a problem, only one of which focuses on data and logic
  • PMI Analysis
  • Six action shoes
  • Shedding and reframing as tools to simplify
  • Metaphor – Many of de Bono’s books on thinking extend the application of a simple metaphor
  • Parallel thinking – accepting competing ideas and working from all of them
  • Water logic – the idea that the outcome of a series of actions matters more than the ‘sense’ of a single action

Beyond de Bono, many other thinkers have taken his ideas of lateral thinking and devised tools to help us. My favourite approach for practical use is a card set that provides stimulus for lateral thinking. There are many examples.

  • Perhaps the best known is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card set
  • Almost as well known is Roger Von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack (US|UK)
  • But my current favourite is Booreiland’s 75 Tools for Creative Thinkers (US|UK)

What is Your experience of Lateral Thinking?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below, and we’ll respond to every one.

To learn more…

The Creative Manager’s Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools for managers to whom creativity means business survival and personal growth.

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