Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. The term was coined in 1967 by Edward de Bono.
According to de Bono, lateral thinking deliberately distances itself from standard perceptions of creativity as either “vertical” logic (the classic method for problem solving: working out the solution step-by-step from the given data) or “horizontal” imagination (having many ideas but being unconcerned with the detailed implementation of them).
Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the true 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. Edward de Bono defines four types of thinking tools:
- Idea-generating tools intended to break current thinking patterns—routine patterns, the status quo
- Focus tools intended to broaden where to search for new ideas
- Harvest tools intended to ensure more value is received from idea generating output
- Treatment tools that promote consideration of real-world constraints, resources, and support.
Random Entry Idea Generating Tool: The thinker chooses an object at random, or a noun from a dictionary, and associates it with the area they are thinking about.
Provocation Idea Generating Tool: The use of any of the provocation techniques—wishful thinking, exaggeration, reversal, escape, distortion, or arising. The thinker creates a list of provocations and then uses the most outlandish ones to move their thinking forward to new ideas.
Movement Techniques: The thinker develops provocation operations by the following methods: extract a principle, focus on the difference, moment to moment, positive aspects, special circumstances.
Challenge Idea Generating Tool: A tool which is designed to ask the question “Why?” in a non-threatening way: why something exists, why it is done the way it is. The result is a very clear understanding of “Why?” which naturally leads to fresh new ideas. The goal is to be able to challenge anything at all, not just items which are problems. For example, one could challenge the handles on coffee cups. The reason for the handle seems to be that the cup is often too hot to hold directly. Perhaps coffee cups could be made with insulated finger grips, or there could be separate coffee-cup holders similar to beer holders.
Concept Fan Idea Generating Tool: Ideas carry out concepts. This tool systematically expands the range and number of concepts in order to end up with a very broad range of ideas to consider.
Disproving: Based on the idea that the majority is always wrong (as suggested by Henrik Ibsen and by John Kenneth Galbraith), take anything that is obvious and generally accepted as “goes without saying”, question it, take an opposite view, and try to convincingly disprove it. This technique is similar to de Bono’s “Black Hat” of Six Thinking Hats, which looks at the ways in which something will not work.
Lateral thinking and problem solving:
Problem Solving: When something creates a problem, the performance or the status quo of the situation drops. Problem solving deals with finding out what caused the problem and then figuring out ways to fix the problem. The objective is to get the situation to where it should be. For example, a production line has an established run rate of 1000 items per hour. Suddenly, the run rate drops to 800 items per hour. Ideas as to why this happened and solutions to repair the production line must be thought of, such as giving the worker a pay raise.
Creative Problem Solving: Using creativity, one must solve a problem in an indirect and unconventional manner. For example, if a production line produced 1000 books per hour, creative problem solving could find ways to produce more books per hour, use the production line, or reduce the cost to run the production line.
Creative Problem Identification: Many of the greatest non-technological innovations are identified while realizing an improved process or design in everyday objects and tasks either by accidental chance or by studying and documenting real world experience.
Lateral Problem “Solving”: Lateral thinking will often produce solutions whereby the problem appears as “obvious” in hindsight. That lateral thinking will often lead to problems that you never knew you had, or it will solve simple problems that have a huge potential. For example, if a production line produced 1000 books per hour, lateral thinking may suggest that a drop in output to 800 would lead to higher quality, more motivated workers etc. etc.
Lateral thinking puzzles: These are puzzles that are supposed to demonstrate what lateral thinking is about. However any puzzle that has only one solution is “not” lateral. While lateral thinking may help you construct such puzzles, the lateral thinking tools will seldom help you solve puzzles.
Lateral thinking puzzles that challenge your preconceptions.
- You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:
- An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.
- An old friend who once saved your life.
- The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.
Knowing that there can only be one passenger in your car, whom would you choose?
Hint: You can make everyone happy. Your car can only contain one passenger, so whom should it be?
Solution: The old lady of course! After helping the old lady into the car, you can give your keys to your friend, and wait with your perfect partner for the bus.
- Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman. How do they know they’ve got their man?
Hint: The police only know two things, that the criminal’s name is John and that he is in a particular house.
Solution: The fireman is the only man in the room. The rest of the poker players are women.
- A man lives in the penthouse of an apartment building. Every morning he takes the elevator down to the lobby and leaves the building. Upon his return, however, he can only travel halfway up in the lift and has to walk the rest of the way – unless it’s raining. What is the explanation for this?
Hint: He is very proud, so refuses to ever ask for help.
Solution: The man is a dwarf. He can’t reach the upper elevator buttons, but he can ask people to push them for him. He can also push them with his umbrella.
- How could a baby fall out of a twenty-story building onto the ground and live?
Hint: It does not matter what the baby lands on, and it has nothing to do with luck.
Solution: The baby fell out of a ground floor window.
- Bad Boy Bubby was warned by his mother never to open the cellar door or he would see things that he was not meant to see. One day while his mother was out he did open the cellar door. What did he see?
Hint: His mother was an odd woman.
Solution: When Bad Boy Bubby opened the cellar door he saw the living room and, through its windows, the garden. He had never seen these before because his mother had kept him all his life in the cellar.
- A man and his son are in a car crash. The father is killed and the child is taken to hospital gravely injured. When he gets there, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy – for he is my son!!!’ How can this possibly be?
- Hint: This has nothing to do with adoption or time travel.
Solution: The surgeon cannot operate on her own son; she is his mother.
- There are six eggs in the basket. Six people each take one of the eggs. How can it be that one egg is left in the basket?
Hint: A alternate version of the problem is…
Saradhi, Nick & Ted win a raffle contest. The prize is three hard boiled eggs in a basket. After discussing how to divide the prize, each take one egg. Nick & Ted get hungry and so eat their eggs. One of the original eggs is still left in original basket.
Solution: The last person took the basket with the last egg still inside.