Lateral Thinking

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Lateral Thinking

Definition and Characteristics

Lateral thinking is associated with insight, creativity and humour. Insight, creativity and humour are intangible aspects created through patterns developed by lateral thinking[1]. Patterns created by lateral thinking are correspondingly related to logical approach considered towards a situation, which is outside the conventional approach observed around us. Lateral thinking can be thus involves suspending logical linear thinking, instead breaking out of patterns to explore an issue in new ways from new angles[2]. The definition summarises the following characteristics of lateral thinking:

  • Lateral thinking is closely related to creativity. Though creativity is too often the descriptions of a result, lateral thinking is the description of the process. In order to be creative one needs to use and handle information and supporting knowledge leading to logical and unconventional ways of dealing with a situation or issue. For example, the solar bottle bulb (showed in class) is an unconventional means of generating electricity unlike the conventional norm of producing electricity using coal.
  • Lateral thinking is concerned with changing patterns or breaking out of the concept prisons of old ideas and generation of new ideas and insights. Insight can be determined through alterations in a (old) sequence. The effectiveness of new ideas and insights can be however, experienced only after the new process has been implemented. Accordingly, as suggested in the previous point lateral thinking focuses on the process than on the end-result. This also implies that new ideas generated through lateral thinking may not necessarily by successful but can be reconsidered to generate more new and different ideas
  • Lateral thinking is both an attitude and method of using information. As an attitude, lateral thinking challenges arrogance of rigidity and dogma. It acknowledges the usefulness of an existing pattern but also aims towards building a different pattern not just as an alternative but as logical approach. For example, in the Trichy police case study, J. K. Tripathy treated communal tensions in Trichy not by the conventional norm – fear or force but through community building (Refer to powerpoint slides titled “lecture 12”).
  • Lateral thinking is never a judgment. Lateral thinking does not hold a pattern to be wrong but the rigidity of the same to be wrong. For example, in the Trichy police case study, fear and force is a standard norm considered in many cities like Mumbai and is highly subjective. There are various characteristics of crime in Mumbai especially the communal dynamism, population, connectivity, etc. that may seem feasible in terms of managing crime in Mumbai. There are however, exceptions within Mumbai where certain communities collaborate among themselves and help Mumbai police to tackle crime. The key factor in lateral thinking is the way information can be used, altered and which then becomes a part of the line of development.
  • Lateral thinking is directly related to the information handling behaviour of the mind. The need for lateral thinking arises from the limitations of a self-maximising memory pattern. Lateral thinking aims at breaking old patterns in order to liberate information. Self-maximisation means maximising one’s own potential, which in turn perpetuates one’s memory system to create new patterns. For example, in the Trichy police case study, past practises of fear and force may have not been a feasible approach based on Mr.Tripathy’s past experience and a more sensitive approach was considered in Trichy that reduced communal tensions and crime and enabled community development.


Techniques considered in lateral thinking are simple problem solving techniques that can be used in anybody’s day-to-day lives. These techniques are detailed below:

(A) Generation of alternatives

The most basic principle of lateral thinking is that any particular way of looking at things is only one from among many other possible ways. Hence, is the first step involves generating alternative ways of stating the problem. In the example examined in class, the example’s problem can be any of the following:

  • Why would women with children and bags travel in crowded trains?
  • Why would women with children and bags travel in trains during peak hours?
  • Should women with children and bags be allowed to travel in crowded trains during peak hours?
  • Why isn’t there enough space in trains for everyone to travel anytime of the day?

Please note that the above questions are based on the reactions of most students when this example was discussed. The question in bold is the actual problem statement related to the example. i.e. “Why isn’t there enough space in trains for everyone to travel anytime of the day?” Here the problem is ‘not enough space’ and not ‘women with bags and children’ or ‘travelling in trains during peak hours’.

The second step is to generate alternative approaches to the problem. In our example, if the existing circumstances were not changed, the expected alternative approach would be when other working women and students were considerate and accommodated the women with bags and children. If the existing circumstances were allowed to be changed then the space factor can be tackled by introducing more coaches for women.

Another example can include: A one pint milk bottle with half a pint of water in it. State the problem and find approaches to solve the problem.

(B) Challenging assumptions

Consider a problem about a man who worked in a tall building. Each morning he got in the lift on the ground floor, pressed the lift button to the 10th floor, got out of the lift and walked up to the 15th floor. At night he would get into the lift on the 15th floor and get out again on the ground floor. What was the man upto to?

Various explanations can be derived from the above mentioned from the above mentioned problem and they can be the following:

  • The man wanted exercise
  • He wanted to talk to someone of the way up from the 10th to the 15th floor
  • He wanted to admire the view as he walked up
  • He wanted people to think he worked on the 10th floor as it might have been more prestigious

In reality, the man acted in this peculiar way because he had no choice. He was short in height and could not reach higher than the 10th floor button. The above mentioned explanations are generally based on a natural assumption that the man is perfectly normal and it is his behaviour that is abnormal. Such assumptions without supporting basis could lead to various problems. Correspondingly, all assumptions and generalisations should be challenged and one approach to challenging assumptions is by asking questions. The questions enable reducing the situation into simplest components that gives a detailed view of the underlying problem in a particular situation.The “Why” technique is one approach that can be considered to determine the root-cause of a problem. This tool is used by asking “why” to the end-result and then questionining backwards to the starting point. For example, “Why is our client AB Corp unhappy?”. Answer: Because we did not deliver our services when we said we would. “Why were we unable to meet the agreed-upon timeline or schedule for delivery?” Answer: The job took much longer than we thought it would. “Why did it take so much longer?” Answer: Because we underestimated the complexity of the job. “Why did we underestimate the complexity of the job?” Answer: Because we made a quick estimate of the time needed to complete it, and did not list the individual stages needed to complete the project. “Why didn’t we do this?” Answer: Because we were running behind on other projects. We clearly need to review our time estimation and specification procedures.

The “Why” technique is easy to use technique and can be applied to determine the root-cause of any problems or issues. However, the effects of the technique could be subjective and one could consider other techniques in addition to this techniques.

(C) Creativity

Creativity is the ability to produce something new through imaginative skill which could be a new solution to a problem, a new method or device or new artistic object or form. Please refer to the explanation on creativity in lateral thinking in the previous section. Nevertheless, broad steps for creativity include: Identifying and defining the problem or focus are; Generating different ideas to solve the problem and; Implementation.

(D) Design Process

Design is a convenient format of practising lateral thinking. The first step involves suggesting projects or ways of improving existing things. For example, an apple picking machine that picks apples from trees. The second step is to identify different functions or varieties of functions. For example, the apple picking machine can reach out to apples, pick the right apples, transport the apples to the ground, sort out the apples, put the apples in containers and move onto he next tree. The third step is to critically evaluate the design for omissions, for errors of mechanics, for errors of efficiency, etc. For example, the apple picking machine can have a container attached to itself that picks the right apples and place it in the containers rather than to the ground and then sort them later before moving to the next tree and save time. The “why” technique can be also used in the design process for critically evaluating any idea

(E) Dominant Ideas and Crucial factors

The dominant idea is an organising theme that is often present but not necessarily defined and must be defined. For example, the Trichy police case study’s dominant idea was to curb communal tensions, the women with bags and children example’s dominant idea was that of less space in trains and the apple picking machine example’s dominant idea is convenient way of picking apples. Alternatively, crucial factor refers to a tethering point or some element in the situation, which must be always included no matter how one looks at the situation. For example, in the apple picking machine example, crucial factor is that the machine should pick ripe and not damaged apples. The women with bags and children example’s crucial factors include, bags and children and peak hours travelling. Also, trichy police case study’s crucial factor is the reduction in communal tension and image of the police. Identification of dominant ideas and crucial factors is a critical technique that could be useful in research and analysis of various industries and businesses. One of the best ways of learning this technique is by reading newspaper (business) articles and analysing information in between lines.

[1]Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, by Edward de Bono

[2]A guide to action by Diana Winstanley