What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking is one of those terms that many people have heard of, but probably very few of us really know what it means. So when I saw a very clear definition and description of it in Paul Sloane’s excellent new book, How to be a Brilliant Thinker: Exercise Your Mind & Find Creative Solutions, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

“Lateral thinking is a phrase coined by Dr. Edward de Bono as a counterpoint to conventional or vertical thinking. In contentional thinking, we go forward in a predictable, direct fashion. Lateral thinking involves coming at the problem from new directions – literally, from the side.”

Sloane says that every walk of life has its dogmas – the dominant ideas that everyone simply accepts without questionining them. They are assumptions, rules and conventions that influence people’s thinking and attitudes. Once they’re in place, people naturally support them, because they seem to make sense, and they tend to vociferously defend those beliefs, no matter what. Lateral thinking, he points out, is an excellent tool for viewing those dominant ideas in a fresh light. The strategy he recommends is to write them down, and then deliberately challenge them. Turn every dominant idea and association on its head, and simply see where it leads.

Asking “What if?” is an excellent technique that can help you to stretch your lateral thinking muscles, because it forces you to explore possibilities and challenge assumptions – both at the same time. Sloane encourages the reader to come up with questions that are extreme to the point of being ridiculous, because they help to whack us out of our well-rutted paths of thinking.

As you generate these crazy questions, explore ways of fulfilling them and write down any ideas that occur to you. These answers may not necessarily represent actual solutions to your challenge, but rather they may serve as powerful stepping stones to fresh insights and ideas.

“Each question generates stimulating lines of inquiry by testing the rules and dominant ideas (and) boundaries that are assumed to apply to the problem. Start with a challenge and, individually or in a group, generate a short list of really provocative ‘What if?’ questions. Take one and see where it leads. Follow the crazy train of thought and see what emerges. You will start with silly ideas, but these often lead to radical insights and innovations.”

Why not try lateral thinking about your job, your industry or profession? What dogmas and assumptions can you dig into and potentially overturn?