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So what is lateral thinking, anyway?

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We’ve all heard of it.  It’s even found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.  But what is lateral thinking, exactly?

What thinking isn’t

We can answer that question – exactly.  But, before we do so, let’s dispel a few myths about thinking. 

Thinking is not intelligence.  Thinking unintelligently may still achieve a result.  Intelligence without thinking is useless.  (It’s worth pointing out, also, that ‘intelligence’ is not a single quality.  All of us possess multiple intelligences.  The key to our success as humans is not our higher intelligence than other animals, but our ability to use all our intelligences.)

Thinking is not a function of education.  We all know people who may not have enjoyed ‘a good education’ but who think well, and wisely.  And we can probably all think of a few ‘highly educated’ people who hare hopeless thinkers. 

Thinking is not the accumulation of information.  We certainly need information to think well:  information is the raw material of thinking.  But increasing information is not thinking; it’s simply hoarding.  Too much information can seriously hamper our ability to think well.

Thinking is not just the operation of logic.  We tend to associate ‘thinking’ with logical reasoning.  But thinking is far, far more than logic.  What are you doing when you prioritise, clarify your objectives, assess alternatives, imagine consequences or seek other people’s opinions?  You’re thinking, of course.  And thinking involves perceiving, interpreting, translating, transforming, choosing, designing, evaluating – and even having hunches.

In other words: thinking is a set of skills.

Vertical thinking and lateral thinking

All thinking is based on a single mental operation: the ability of the mind to make connections between things.

Which brings us to Edward de Bono.

De Bono, a Maltese biologist, first used the term ‘lateral thinking’ in the mid-1960s.  He distinguishes lateral thinking from what he calls ‘vertical thinking’.

Vertical thinking looks for the correct answer.  When we do vertical thinking, we have to correct at every stage in order to be correct at the end.  Vertical thinking is like climbing a ladder.  We have to stay on the ladder in order to get to the top: the correct answer.

Doing a sum is a classic example of vertical thinking.

Lateral thinking looks for a different answer.  We don’t have to be correct at any stage in lateral thinking, because we’re not looking for the correct answer.  Lateral thinking is like using stepping stones.  We use whatever stones are available to keep moving: to take our thinking somewhere else.

Looking at a problem from another person’s point of view would be a classic example of lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking generally makes mental connections in three ways.  We can link items by similarity, closeness or opposition.  

For example, we might link the word ‘table’ to the words:

  • shelf (similar);
  • chair (closeness); or
  • pit (opposition).

Notice that these lateral connections aren’t exactly novel.  Some kinds of links are easier to find than others. (What’s the opposite of a chair?)  If we want to create new ideas, we have to force-fit lateral connections: put two apparently unconnected items together and ask how they are similar, close or the reverse of each other.

Luckily, the human mind never loses its talent for making new connections.  Given the chance, it can connect anything to anything.

Most creativity techniques use lateral thinking in one way or another.  Broadly, these techniques fall into two categories: techniques involving metaphor (looking for similarities and closeness); and techniques involving reversal (looking for opposites).

About the author: Alan Barker is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited, a training and coaching consultancy that helps people communicate and think more effectively.  Alan is a member of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and the European Speechwriter Network.

Creativity at Work

If you want to learn how to find more about lateral thinking, take a look at my eBook, Creativity at Work.

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