21 Lateral Thinking Examples (And Definition) (2023) (2023)

21 Lateral Thinking Examples (And Definition) (2023) (1)

The term lateral thinking refers to a problem-solving strategy that utilizes creative and indirect reasoning. We might colloquially call it “thinking outside the box.’

Instead of relying on step-by-step analysis of the problem, the conventional method, lateral thinking often produces solutions that only seem obvious in hindsight.

The term “lateral thinking” was coined by Edward de Bono (1967) in his book The Use of Lateral Thinking.

He illustrates the difference between lateral thinking and conventional logic-based thinking (referred to as vertical thinking) with the following lateral thinking example:

“If you were to take a set of toy blocks and build them upwards, each block resting firmly and squarely on the block below it, you would have an illustration of vertical thinking. With lateral thinking the blocks are scattered around. They may be connected to each other loosely or not at all. But the pattern that may eventually emerge can be as useful as the vertical structure” (p. 11).

Lateral thinking can be applied to any problem and is often seen in professions such as advertising and product design, where creativity is highly valued.

Contents show

11 Top Lateral Thinking Examples

  • Finding Alternatives: Using a car engine to generate electricity in your home during a blackout
  • Working Around Problems: Starting a business when you are having trouble getting a job
  • Generating Tech Solutions: Using a drone to deliver packages instead of a traditional delivery truck
  • Reverse Thinking: Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve, think about what you don’t want to achieve, and find ways to avoid it.
  • Seeking New Solutions: Using virtual reality technology for mental health treatment to save time and money
  • Seeing Opportunity in Disaster: Using mobile apps for remote learning and education during a lockdown
  • Finding a Way: Using crowdfunding to finance small business and startup projects
  • Creating New Avenues: Using the sharing economy such as Airbnb and Uber to make use of underutilized resources
  • Being Resourceful: Using green roofs and walls for urban agriculture and sustainable building design
  • Thinking Outside the Box: Using a magnifying glass to light a fire when you realize you don’t have matches or a lighter (this is the inverse of functional fixedness)
  • Divergent Thinking: Using a coconut shell as a bowl because you don’t have any bowls nearby

10 Lateral Thinking Case Studies

1. Goal: Make More Money

Lateral thinking involves reframing the problem in a way that allows us to see a solution that would not be seen with conventional vertical thinking.

For example, if the problem is that you want to make more money, the logic-based vertical thinking solution leads to a very logical solution: work more.

Working more means more money will be transferred to your possession; problem solved.

Unfortunately, this solution can lead to a person taking multiple jobs and working nearly every waking moment of their existence. Yes, this will generate more money. But at what expense?

Lateral thinking suggests reframing of the problem: save more money. This results in more money being in your pocket, which is the ultimate goal.

However, instead of working three jobs, the lateral solution is to spend less money. Stop buying over-priced coffee and instead purchase a good coffee maker. Instead of buying a new car, buy one second-hand.

2. The Fearless Girl

Lateral thinking can be seen in some of the most clever marketing campaigns in history. Often, the ad is amazingly simple, yet powerful. The simplicity adds to its impact.

One example can be seen in the marketing campaign known as The Fearless Girl by State Street Global Advisors.

Instead of implementing the usual strategy of producing TV ads with a respected spokesperson or having short scenes of testimonials from average citizens that have had great financial success investing in stocks, they took a quite creative approach.

They hired Kristen Visbal to sculpt a bronze figure of a young female child standing boldly, hands on hips, and placed her directly in front of the quite large and intimidating Charging Bull in the financial district of Manhattan in New York City.

The goal was to advertise an index fund which was focused on gender diverse companies that have a high percentage of women in senior leadership. That index fund is represented by the ticker symbol SHE.

3. Measuring Income Inequality

Economic equality is recognized as the source of many ills in the world today. From civil unrest to the dysfunctional family unit, when humans feel as though they do not have economic opportunity, while others live lavishly, many troubles will ensue.

The vertical thinking approach to measuring economic inequality involves a mathematical formula consisting of various economic and population indexes.

(Video) Creative thinking - how to get out of the box and generate ideas: Giovanni Corazza at TEDxRoma

In his seminal paper (Atkinson, 1970) states that the “…conventional method of approach is misleading….I hope that these conventional measures will be rejected in favor of direct consideration of the properties that we should like the social welfare function to display” (p. 262)

He then took an unusual approach to measuring the concept by including social welfare issues. In his own words:

“Lateral thinking led to the results on the measurement of risk being applied to the problem of measuring income inequality. In this, and in other areas of economics, lateral thinking has made a significant contribution” (Atkinson, 2011, p. 319).

His use of lateral thinking has had a profound impact in economics, demonstrating that “…economics is primarily a social and moral science” (Wernerová, 2019, p. 1).

4. Challenging Assumptions: The Nine Dots Problem

The nine dots problem is well-known to most readers. Nonetheless, it is offered by de Bono (1970) as an example of how lateral thinking is accomplished by challenging assumptions.

As de Bono explains:

“In challenging assumptions, one challenges the necessity of boundaries and limits and one challenges the validity of individual concepts. As in lateral thinking in general there is no question in attacking the assumptions as wrong…It is simply a matter of trying to restructure patterns. And by definition, assumptions are patterns which usually escape the restructuring process” (p. 49).

The problem goes like this: Nine dots are arranged in three vertical rows of three. The goal is to connect the nine dots using only four straight lines, without raising the pencil from the paper.

The solution is derived by letting go of the common assumption that one cannot extend the line past the outer boundaries of the dots. Although this rule is never stated in the instructions, people have this assumption fixed in their mind.

“If one breaks through this assumption and does go beyond the boundary then the problem is easily solved…” (p. 50).

5. In the Classroom

In many of his books, de Bono likes to use classroom examples of how teachers can help their students develop lateral thinking. This is a noble cause and one reason that his work has had such an enduring impact in the study of problem-solving, divergent thinking, and creativity.

One exercise he recommends is for teachers to ask students to design a useful product. Some specific suggestions include:

  • an apple-picking machine
  • a cup that cannot spill
  • a device to help cars park

The purpose of this activity is to show that there can be different solutions to the same problem. It is the thinking process that is so much more valuable than the end result.

“Though an idea may seem silly in itself it can still lead to something useful…No one is silly for the sake of being silly no matter how it might appear to other people. There must be a reason why something made sense to the person who drew it at the moment when it was drawn. What it appears to other people is not so important if one is trying to encourage lateral thinking. In any case whatever the reason behind a design and however silly it may be it can still be a most useful stimulus to further ideas” (de Bono, 1970, p. 61).

6. Reconceptualizing the Good Life

Some people in Western cultures start to feel a great deal of stress as a result of constantly striving to have a better life. They believe that having material objects such as a big house with a three-car garage, dining in over-priced restaurants, and wearing expensive jewelry are signs of living the good life.

This is typical vertical thinking that is defined culturally. Possessing expensive material goods equals a better life.

However, lateral thinking would change the definition of “better life.” With lateral thinking, the concept is defined as feeling relaxed, leading a slower pace of life, and spending time on hobbies.

So, the solution is simple, and many people have taken this step. Instead of working harder to purchase more material goods, they sell all they have and move to a country with a much lower cost of living.

Many Americans have done just that. For example, many Californians are selling their houses (known for expensive real estate) and moving to small beach towns in Mexico.

They arrive at the solution they want: to have a better life, but do so by escaping conventional norms through lateral thinking and taking a different path.

7. The Best TV Ad in History

Yes, crowning something as “best in history” is not an exact science. It’s a value judgment that is subjective and open to a lot of debate. However, there is no doubt that at least one of the best TV ads in history is the 1984 ad by Apple.

It was a groundbreaking piece of cinematography for a TV ad, produced by Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner.

The reason the ad is considered so astounding is more than just the visual aesthetics, but has a lot more to do with the message. Instead of relying on vertical thinking and boasting about the computing power or the advanced graphics chip, the ad says nothing about those features.

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The ad is an exercise in lateral thinking like never before seen in the advertising world. It makes a statement about conformity, bucking the establishment, and avid individualism.

8. The “Why” Technique

The “why” lateral thinking technique by de Bono is designed to create discomfort with the information that has been provided. The process involves the teacher making a statement, followed by the student asking “why.” This exchange is repeated at length; each explanation to be questioned.

“The usual purpose of “why” is to elicit information. One wants to be comforted with some explanation which one can accept and be satisfied with. The lateral use of why is quite opposite. The intention is to create discomfort with any explanation. By refusing to be comforted with an explanation one tries to look at things in a different way and so increases the possibility of restructuring the pattern” (de Bono, 1970, p. 53).

The process is a little more complex if done properly. Rather than simply repeating the word “why,” much like the habit of a child, the serious student will be more focused. The question should be directed to a specific aspect of the previous explanation.

Even if the teacher knows of the true reason, to get the most out of this exercise, they should phrase their answer that allows enough flexibility to continue the probe.

9. Applied to Students

Srikongchan et al. (2021) pointed out that many instructional approaches in the classroom fail to foster creativity in school children.

Students “…are directed to think in the same pattern to understand the contents, working the projects, and generating the solutions. They are not encouraged to think differently or think out of the box” (p. 234).

The researchers implemented a backward instructional design by having students participate in 9 different lateral thinking learning activities.

A total of 60 fifth-grade students in an Information Technology course in Thailand took part in the study, and their degree of creativity was assessed both before and after the lateral thinking activities.

The results indicated that students:

“…significantly improved their creative thinking scores” when comparing before and after scores. “It can be implied that the learning activities and learning experience of lateral thinking could provide students a meaningful learning process…and help the students developed creative thinking” (p. 243).

10. The Reverse Thinking Technique

At the center of lateral thinking is the objective to look at a problem from a different perspective. The reversal technique takes similar aim.

The process leads to a way of looking at a situation that is obviously wrong, perhaps even ridiculous. This is done to escape the shackles of conventional vertical thinking.

For instance, the teacher explains that a policeman directs traffic. Then, the students are instructed to engage in reverse thinking, which leads to: the traffic controls the policeman, or, the policeman disorganizes the traffic.

This leads to a consideration of natural traffic flow, or if traffic lights would be superior to a policeman.

It doesn’t matter if the solution generated actually makes sense in the beginning; the point is that the student/problem-solver is moving in the right direction. The purpose is to be provocative and to consider the problem from an alternative point of view.

Lateral Thinking Strengths

1. Discovering Overlooked Ideas

One of the most valuable strengths of lateral thinking is the consideration of overlooked aspects of a problem.

Because people are so locked-in to vertical thinking, which is logical and rational, they can fail to see all aspects of a situation.

Lateral thinking encourages the examination of all aspects of a matter. Even if those elements seem inconsequential, one never knows how valuable they may be unless they are at least considered.

2. Generating a Different Perspective

Several of the techniques utilized in lateral thinking have the explicit goal of looking at a problem from a different perspective.

This is at the heart of divergent thinking or creativity, or the oft-overused saying “think outside the box.”

“In lateral thinking one is not looking for the right answer but for a different arrangement of information which will provoke a different way of looking at the situation” (de Bono, 1970, p. 71).

Even if that different way of looking seems silly and invaluable, it may actually lead to someone else having a great idea that is the exact solution needed.

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3. Constructively Challenge the Status Quo

Challenging the status quo enables the problem-solver to generate useful solutions.

So often people become used to using a product a certain way or going through a procedure in a specific manner. Those routines can become so automatic that they are just accepted as standard operating procedures.

However, the techniques of lateral thinking force people to question those givens and seek alternatives.

By challenging the assumptions of why we do the things we do, we take the first step to creating a better process, which may be more efficient or may actually be a complete overhaul of standard practices.

Lateral Thinking Weaknesses

1. Conceptual Redundancy

Lateral thinking has quite a bit in common with divergent thinking, innovation, and creativity.

These concepts all involve looking at situations from a different perspective and generating solutions that are unique and non-conventional.

Since there is so much overlap in these very similar concepts, one has to wonder why is there a need to invent a new term for those that already exist?

If divergent thinking and lateral thinking result in the same unique solution, then why is there a need to have two names for the same horse?

2. Fails to Acknowledge Research

One weakness of lateral thinking is that de Bono often ignores established research on thinking and problem-solving.

There has been a tremendous amount of rigid scientific research on heuristics, divergent thinking, and methods to improve problem-solving.

However, that research is unacknowledged, not even mentioned in de Bono’s many books.

To be accepted as a scientific theory, it is necessary to explain how one’s own postulations fit with other theories, particularly those theories that have earned wide acceptance due to the body of solid science behind them.

3. Reliance on Riddles, Stories, and Testimonials

Lateral thinking has been termed a “pseudoscience” by critics. Because of its reliance on riddles, fictional stories, and testimonials as support for the theory’s efficacy, it fails to meet standard criteria for legitimacy.

Although de Bono offers-up narratives as illustrating key concepts in lateral thinking, it is not the kind of evidence that is considered valid in disciplines such as modern psychology.

As Antonio Melechi succinctly concluded:

“Rather than accumulate independent empirical evidence of its efficacy, the lateral thinking movement still opts to festoon itself in anecdotes, hearsay and testimonials.”

Conclusion

Lateral thinking involves approaching problems in ways that result in a novel solution. Instead of taking the usual path of conventional problem-solving methods such as logic, the theory postulates that lateral thinking offers a valuable alternative.

There are several techniques presented by de Bono (1967; 1970) that facilitate lateral thinking and the generation of novel solutions. These techniques involve questioning the assumptions of the problem, challenging the usual explanations by asking “why,” and engaging in reverse thinking.

Lateral thinking can result in discovering previously overlooked aspects of a problem, helping people see the problem from a different perspective, and challenging accepted practices and conceptions.

On the other side of the coin, critics would like to see the theory supported by empirical evidence and a clear explanation of how it differs from theories that have solid scientific support.

References

Atkinson, A. B. (1970). On the measurement of inequality. Journal of Economic Theory, 2, 244-263.

Atkinson, A. B. (2011). On lateral thinking. The Journal of Economic Inequality, 9(3), 319-328.

de Bono, E. (1967). The use of lateral thinking. Jonathan Cape

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de Bono, E. (1977). Lateral Thinking: a textbook of creativity. Penguin Books.

Srikongchan, W., Kaewkuekool, S., & Mejaleurn, S. (2021). Backward instructional design based learning activities to developing students’ creative thinking with lateral thinking technique. International Journal of Instruction, 14(2), 233-252.

Wernerová, Barbora. (2019). Economic inequality according Atkinson. SHS Web of Conferences, 61. 01034. https://doi.org/10.1051/shsconf/20196101034

21 Lateral Thinking Examples (And Definition) (2023) (2)

Dave Cornell (PhD)

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

21 Lateral Thinking Examples (And Definition) (2023) (3)

Chris Drew (PhD)

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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FAQs

What is lateral thinking and example? ›

Lateral thinking (horizontal thinking) is a form of ideation where designers approach problems by using reasoning that is disruptive or not immediately obvious. They use indirect and creative methods to think outside the box and see problems from radically new angles, gaining insights to help find innovative solutions.

What are the examples of lateral? ›

Lateral means to the side of, or away from, the middle of the body. Examples: The ears are lateral to the nose. The arms are lateral to the chest.

What is your lateral thinking? ›

What is lateral thinking? Lateral thinking is the ability to use your imagination to look at a problem in a fresh way and come up with a new solution.

Which of the following best describes lateral thinking? ›

What is lateral thinking? It essentially means being able to think creatively or "outside the box" in order to solve a problem. Usually, logical thinking is used to solve problems in a direct, straightforward way (also known as vertical thinking).

How do you use lateral thinking in the workplace? ›

How to cultivate lateral thinking in your team
  1. Get in the habit of reframing problems. First, get in the habit of reframing problems instead of jumping to tried-and-true approaches to solving them. ...
  2. Ask questions often. ...
  3. Listen without preconceived notions. ...
  4. Encourage your team to work from different environments.
Jun 16, 2022

Can you give an example of lateral communication? ›

Essentially, lateral communication between members of the same team takes place, for example, every time your teammate posts about their weekly progress on the project you're working on and the entire team jumps in to cheer them on.

How do you teach lateral thinking? ›

How To Improve Lateral Thinking Skills In eLearning
  1. Identify Limiting Cognitions. ...
  2. Incorporate Online Group Collaboration Activities. ...
  3. Use Puzzles To Get The Mental Gears Turning. ...
  4. Integrate eLearning Simulations And Branching Scenarios. ...
  5. Develop Mind Maps. ...
  6. Encourage Online Learners To Adopt A Different Perspective.
Nov 18, 2016

Why is lateral thinking important? ›

Why should lateral thinking be used? Lateral thinking is based on applying logic in an unconventional way, from a logic perspective to the application of a problem to reach a different and creative solution. This thinking is still rational and logical. Edward de Bono uses the example of King Solomon to explain it.

What are some great examples of lateral thinking? ›

Lateral thinking, a term coined in 1967 by Edward de Bono, is the process of solving a problem using an unusual or creative approach.
...
We need to reduce our real estate costs.
  • Conventional answer: Reduce the rentable square foot per desk ratio. ...
  • Lateral Thinking: Reduce rentable square foot per person ratio.
  • Why?
Nov 8, 2016

Is lateral thinking the same as critical thinking? ›

Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the truth value of statements and seeking errors. Lateral thinking is more concerned with the “movement value” of statements and ideas. A person uses lateral thinking to move from one known idea to creating new ideas.

What is opposite of lateral thinking? ›

Vertical thinking is a type of approach to problems that usually involves one being selective, analytical, and sequential. It could be said that it is the opposite of lateral thinking.

How do you answer lateral thinking questions? ›

When you're working on a lateral thinking puzzle, you have to look at the scenario presented and try to find context clues. Sometimes the most correct answer is actually the most obvious, which is why you don't land there immediately.

Why is it called lateral thinking? ›

Lateral thinking, also described as sideways thinking, is a term originally coined by Edward de Bono in 1967 to describe an alternative process to conventional linear thinking — one that breaks out of the habitual cognitive patterns learned at school.

What is lateral strategy? ›

a creative approach to problem-solving, typically through viewing the problem in a new and unusual light.

Why is lateral thinking important for problem solving? ›

The approach provides a variety of techniques and tools to enhance creative thinking processes. While logical thinking , sometimes called vertical thinking, focuses on direct and logical solutions, lateral thinking uses a broader perspective to develop an answer that may appear less obvious to others.

How does Lateral help in decision making? ›

This technique uses different thinking approaches required by an individual/group while analysing a given problem/situation in an effective way. In this model different thinking approaches are used in a systematic manner indicated bya different set of frame of references called coloured hats.

What is lateral thinking in soft skills? ›

Lateral thinking means the ability to create multiple ways of approaching problems and dealing with different business situations. You're motivated by alternative methods of operation, and care less about 'doing things the right way' or having to follow certain procedures to get by.

What are the 4 types of communication give examples? ›

4 Types of communication
  • Non-verbal communication. It is interesting to note that non-verbal communication is used both intentionally and unintentionally. ...
  • Verbal communication. When we speak, we are communicating much more than just the content of our words. ...
  • Written communication. ...
  • Visual communication.
Jan 19, 2021

What is the 3 example of communication? ›

When communication occurs, it typically happens in one of three ways: verbal, nonverbal and visual.

What is communication List 3 examples of communication? ›

Communication can be categorized into three basic types: (1) verbal communication, in which you listen to a person to understand their meaning; (2) written communication, in which you read their meaning; and (3) nonverbal communication, in which you observe a person and infer meaning.

What is a lateral thinking question? ›

What Is Lateral Thinking? Lateral thinking refers to a person's capacity to problem solve by imagining creative solutions that cannot be figured out by deductive or logical solutions. Basically, it's thinking outside of the box!

What are the major activity available to promote lateral thinking? ›

Three major activities promote lateral thinking processes: (1) creativity, (2) analysis and (3) initiative.

What is an example of logical thinking? ›

A good example of logical thinking in action is the game of chess. Playing chess involves working through a sequence of individual steps which take you closer to victory. Each step is an individual problem to be solved – within the framework of a larger game.

Is brainstorming lateral thinking? ›

Brainstorming combines an informal approach to problem-solving with lateral thinking, which is a method for developing new concepts to solve problems by looking at them in innovative ways. Some of these ideas can be built into original, creative solutions to a problem, while others can generate additional ideas.

What are the six types of thinking? ›

In the 1950s, Benjamin Bloom developed a classification of thinking skills that is still helpful today; it is known as Bloom's taxonomy. He lists six types of thinking skills, ranked in order of complexity: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

What kind of problems would lateral thinking be used to solve? ›

Lateral Thinking is a system for how to approach creative thinking. It can help us look at problems in new, unexpected ways and craft innovative solutions. Lateral Thinking can help us create innovative answers by looking at our problems in new, unexpected ways.

Can lateral thinking be taught? ›

Schools have traditionally focused on critical thinking, only. That vision that was served by this policy is slipping away, and schools need to adapt. Thinking- and lateral thinking in particular- can be taught by any teacher to any student using specific techniques.

How do you use lateral thinking in the classroom? ›

Encourage questions

By asking questions, children not only learn answers to those questions but also discover that the same question may have so many different answers. In effect, they learn that the same problem might have many different solutions, and this is the cornerstone of lateral thinking.

What are lateral thinking exercises? ›

Lateral thinking puzzles are designed to truly test your creative thinking skills. With these challenging riddles that require lateral thinking, you have to step outside the box and consider all the factors that could contribute to an answer that isn't so obvious.

What are the basic methods of lateral thinking? ›

Lateral Thinking Techniques Explained
  • Alternatives: Use concepts to breed new ideas.
  • Focus: Sharpen or change your focus to improve your creative efforts.
  • Challenge: Break free from the limits of accepted ways of doing things.
  • Random Entry: Use unconnected input to open new lines of thinking.

What are some thinking exercises? ›

6 Legendary Thought Exercises to Boost Brainpower
  • Imagine the exact opposite. When feeling stuck with a complex problem, ask “What if?” ...
  • Think 10x instead of 10% ...
  • Get into the flow. ...
  • Write lists. ...
  • Change your perspective. ...
  • Zoom out.

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