Quality and Operational Excellence: Thinking Typologies for solving organisational problems–lateral thinking (VI) 

Lateral thinking

Intro to lateral thinking – A historical perspective

Those who grew up with Star Trek will appreciate this scenario the most. You may recall Kobayashi Maru. The Kobayashi Maru was a Star Trek training exercise designed to put Starfleet Academy cadets through their paces in a no-win situation. The Kobayashi Maru test first appeared in the 1982 film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and it has since been referenced and depicted in a variety of other Star Trek media.

The exercise’s theoretical goal is to rescue the civilian spaceship Kobayashi Maru, which has been damaged and is stranded in dangerous territory. The cadet, being evaluated, must decide whether to try to save the Kobayashi Maru, putting their ship and crew in danger, or to abandon the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. If the cadet decides to attempt a rescue, an overwhelming enemy force attacks their ship.

Kirk had the distinction of being the only cadet ever to beat the ‘no-win’ Kobayashi Maru scenario. He had secretly reprogrammed the simulation computer, making it possible to win, and earning himself a commendation for original thinking. When asked how he was able to win against this no-win situation, he said: “I changed the rules”.

Challenging organisational orthodoxies in problem-solving

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. It is defined as 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. According to Edward de Bono (the originator of the concept):

“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 a thousand ideas but being unconcerned with the detailed implementation of them).”

Analytical thinking (similar to de Bono’s “vertical” logic) requires the use of data and a structured approach to problem-solving. Lateral thinking challenges organisational orthodoxies and asks questions like: “Who put the box there?” “Why are we thinking in these straitjackets?”

Lateral thinking is best understood in contrast to traditional logical thinking. Traditional logic focuses on the obvious, uses tried-and-true methods, moves vertically in a stepwise fashion, and employs judgment to select and reject ideas. Lateral thinking, on the other hand, seeks the least obvious solution, seeks to challenge methods, approaches thought processes sideways, and seeks as many solutions as possible.

Consider the two lateral thinking examples below. They contrast lateral thinking with analytical and logical approaches to problem-solving.

Figure 1 Lateral Thinking Contrasted with Analytical and Logical Thinking

In place of the traditional step-by-step method, lateral thinking employs indirect and creative methods to generate solutions that aren’t immediately apparent. In essence, it encourages you to use your imagination, record all of your thoughts, no matter how ‘crazy’, and use various parts of your brain to assist in problem-solving. It’s an alternative approach to ‘outside the box’ thinking.

The story of King Solomon and the two mothers can be used to illustrate this point. De Bono uses the judgment of Solomon as an example of lateral thinking in which King Solomon settles a dispute over the parentage of a child by ordering the child to be cut in half and basing his decision on the reactions to this order. Therefore, the logic in lateral thinking consists of switching out some of the classical problem-logical solving’s flow with another lateral line of the flow. 

Lateral thinking and the way the mind works 

In de Bono’s intro to his work of the same title, he makes this point: “Lateral thinking is closely related to insight, creativity and humour. All four processes have the same basis. But whereas insight, creativity and humour can only be prayed for, lateral thinking is a more deliberate process. It is as definite a way of using the mind as logical thinking — but a very different way.”

The way the mind works necessitates the use of lateral thinking. Though the mind’s information handling system is extremely effective, it does have some limitations. These limitations are inextricably linked to the system’s benefits because they stem directly from the system’s design. It would be impossible to have the benefits without the drawbacks. Lateral thinking is an attempt to compensate for these disadvantages while maintaining the benefits. 

Lateral thinking complements vertical thinking

From the preceding discussion, lateral thinking appears to be antithetical to the approach to thinking discussed in our previous episode – analytical thinking; and in a much earlier episode, the use of logic as discussed under critical thinking. Some people believe that lateral thinking undermines the validity of vertical thinking. This is not true. The two processes are complementary rather than antagonistic. Vertical thinking is good for developing ideas and approaches, while lateral thinking is good for coming up with them. By broadening the options available to vertical thinking, lateral thinking improves its effectiveness. Vertical thinking increases the effectiveness of lateral thinking by making good use of the ideas generated.

Most of the time, one may use vertical thinking; but when lateral thinking is required, no amount of vertical thinking excellence will suffice. It is dangerous to continue thinking vertically when one should be thinking laterally. Both types of thinking require some skill. According to de Bono: “Lateral thinking is like the reverse gear in a car. One would never try to drive along in reverse gear the whole time. On the other hand, one needs to have it and to know how to use it for manoeuvrability and to get out of a blind alley.”

Systematising lateral thinking within the problem-solving continuum

Lateral thinking, as previously defined, is the unconventional application of logic to a problem in order to arrive at a unique and innovative solution. This indicates where we would place lateral thinking on our continuum’s two hemispheres – the problem space and the solution space. Herein lies the complementarity of the typologies: analytical and logical thinking work best in the problem space, while lateral and creative thinking [more on this in our final episode] works best in the solution space.

Fundamental elements and techniques for lateral thinking

In an online article (https://bit.ly/3Or5LmF) titled: ‘Lateral Thinking is the New Way of Approaching Problems, the author(s) outline some fundamental elements of lateral thinking as:

Check all assumptions. This task should be completed with a group of individuals who are open-minded and capable of handling a variety of situations and environments.

Ask the right questions. Asking the right questions to identify the best solutions to a problem stimulates lateral thinking.

Creativity. This way of thinking is based on constantly seeking out a different perspective because there are some issues that direct logic cannot address.

Logical thinking. Though this way of thinking is not conventionally logical, it is still important to define a new kind of logic and deduction that is grounded in reasoning. To ensure that everyone in the organisation can understand it, this thinking needs to be organised, precise, and succinct.

Ibid, the author(s), also share(s) some insights on techniques that problem-solving teams can employ in their lateral thinking processes:

Awareness. The first step in developing your lateral thinking skills is becoming conscious of how you take in information.

Random stimulation. Allowing outside influences to inspire your creativity is preferable to blocking them out. For instance, the team can go out on a walk, instead of staying indoors.

Employ an analogy. When searching for innovative ideas and solutions, use an analogy to change your perspective in order to avoid being constrained by the obvious. Consider trying to figure out how to locate your car keys. Think about various situations – a person with vision impairment navigating, a stranger in a foreign country. You’ll have new perspectives on the issue and new approaches to solve it.

Learn to subtract. According to studies, whenever we are asked to solve a problem or fix a problem, our first inclination is frequently to add something new — new projects, new products, or new packaging. But what if you started off by subtracting instead of adding something new right away?

Reverse information and ignore common sense. The natural order’s pattern must be broken. Online marketing, for instance, aims to drive traffic to websites. Think about it the other way around: For instance, how do you bring traffic to the website? The brain will be forced to consider alternatives if you reject the obvious. Imagine that Google or any other search engine didn’t exist when thinking about how to make a website more visible online.


The two components of lateral thinking are the provocative use of information and the challenge to accepted concepts. Underlying both of these aspects is the main purpose of lateral thinking which provides a means to restructure patterns. This pattern restructuring is required to make better use of already available information. It is a restructuring of perception.

This methodology can also be used to strengthen relationships within teams at work and to motivate them to adopt a new method of cooperating and communicating. Generally speaking, it can be a good way to start interesting and enjoyable relationships that can occasionally alter an organisation’s overall way of thinking by abandoning its linear methodology.

Leave a Reply