Lateral Thinking: Definition, Importance and How to Improve

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 23 October 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The professional world can require you to develop and practise different methods of thinking throughout your daily duties and your overall career. Thinking laterally can provide you with the skills and methods to develop creative solutions and improve your ability to overcome challenges. Understanding how to use and refine these skills can increase your professional development and benefit your problem-solving abilities while providing highly sought-after skills to advance your career. In this article, we define lateral thinking, discuss its importance and list seven ways you can improve this skill in the workplace.

What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking is a term that describes a person's ability to find creative or alternative solutions to a challenge beyond the use of logical or deductive reasoning. Many professionals use this skill to shift their perspective when logical thinking cannot offer a viable answer or when they encounter a complex issue. This method relies on creative thinking and the ability to consider every aspect of a situation with a unique approach.

Edward de Bono developed and published this strategy in 1967. 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.

Why is lateral thinking important?

Having the skills to develop and implement new solutions and strategies can help advance your career and improve your overall abilities regardless of your role and industry. Many employers who require creativity and problem-solving skills look for candidates with the ability to think laterally. You may encounter a question in an interview that requires you to use a lateral perspective, making it important to understand how to evaluate and answer these questions with the right mindset. Industries that commonly use these skills in their processes include the following:

  • Advertising

  • Media

  • Marketing

How to improve lateral thinking at work

Improving your skills and practising new problem-solving techniques can help you develop these highly desirable abilities. The following are seven ways you can develop, improve and implement these skills in the workplace:

1. Practise awareness

The main idea of lateral thinking involves considering the surrounding factors and components of a situation. By practising awareness, you can increase your ability to see the circumstances and elements of a certain issue or solution. You can improve this awareness by taking the time to observe, record and analyse your current surroundings.

In addition to noticing your environment and conditions, practise an awareness of your default thought patterns. You can observe and evaluate your way of thinking to find and release any limitations that may inhibit the lateral method or creativity. You can use a mind map to record and track your thought process and make yourself aware of your skills.

Related: What Is a Mind Map? (Plus the Benefits of Using One)

2. Consider alternative approaches

Alternative solutions can offer a great way to develop and find new processes and discoveries. You can consider and test a non-traditional solution, even if you already know the logical solution. Especially in creative roles and fields, opting for an alternative approach can increase your ability to reach your goal or set you apart from competitors in the market.

To identify these alternative answers, you can ask questions or use reverse thinking methods to challenge the traditional solutions or identify new connections between situational factors. Think about the opposite of what you usually do. Consider why you rejected other solutions in the past and use them as inspiration for new ideas.

Related: How to Show Creativity at Work (With Tips and Skills)

3. Alter your thought process

By altering your existing thought process, you can develop new and creative methods of thinking. Common ways to modify existing logical thinking patterns may include reversing relationships between factors or enacting the opposite of an implied direction. You may also look to identify and deny any previous assumptions or connections made at the beginning of your thought process.

4. Ask questions

The lateral thought process typically aims to gather and use the largest amount of information available to identify alternative answers or ideas. You can gain even more information by asking questions. Ask about information both related and unrelated to the subject or issue to gather as much data as possible. Even random questions can provide you with ideas, inspiration and information to formulate a creative fix. If you find an answer to a question that inspires you, use follow-up questions to gather even more information about the topic and further develop your solution.

Related: 13 Types of Questions (Including Examples and Benefits)

5. Challenge norms

Creativity and lateral perspectives aim to challenge or avoid the normal processes and procedures to find new and fresh ideas. You can more easily develop and share unique and unconventional solutions by actively identifying and disregarding your normal thoughts and habits. Learning to ignore or challenge the commonly accepted fixes makes more room for alternative methods to emerge.

In addition to challenging the normal processes, look to identify and defy any limitations commonly placed on the situation. In marketing or advertising roles, you may experiment with pushing the common boundaries to create a new method of communication and gain the attention of consumers. Begin by outlining the parameters of the situation, then try to identify practical ways to challenge them.

Related: Creative Thinking: How to Start Thinking Creatively

6. Look for inspiration

Using a lateral approach typically begins with creative thinking. The inspiration for your creative thought process and solutions can come from anywhere, so look to your surroundings and be receptive to inspiration coming from various kinds of stimulation. Any of your senses can offer or trigger an idea and improve your creative thinking skills. Be open to sights, smells, feelings, sounds and even tastes to gain inspiration and explore new ideas. Anything that activates your brain or starts your creative process can help with a lateral perspective.

7. Use transitional objects

A transitional object can appear as a person or thing that has specific characteristics that inspire you. You can use these characteristics to look at a problem from a new perspective. The ideas and attributes you assign to that object or person can come from a movie, TV program or your imagination. This allows you to use non-traditional thinking processes and can aid in the development of a lateral solution.

Related: 12 Cognitive Activities to Enhance Your Thinking Skills

Tips for thinking laterally

While some people have naturally creative minds, others may require additional practise and training. Here are some further techniques you can use to improve and implement a lateral problem-solving process:

  • Collaborate with others. You can use the ideas, input and influence of colleagues or others around you to gather additional input, inspiration and perspectives.

  • Voice your thoughts. Using creative thinking, especially in a group, requires brainstorming to stimulate and inspire new ideas. Voice every thought you have regardless of whether you feel it can be useful because you don't always know what may inspire others or trigger new ideas.

  • Revisit old ideas. When an idea doesn't work in its original form, you can revisit the idea and look for ways to modify it for a new solution. Looking back at your original thoughts and ideas from a brainstorming stage may also help inspire new methods or answers.

  • Practise patience. Just like any other skill, developing this method of thinking takes time and practise. Be patient and work to improve your skills with time by actively trying different techniques and finding one that works for you.

  • Activate your brain. The tools and techniques of this process can often require additional training. You can activate your brain and expand your thinking skills outside the workplace with cognitive activities, such as puzzles and thinking games, to broaden your perspective and train your creative thinking abilities.

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