Lateral thinking technique – effective tool for creative problem solving

Lateral thinking technique as insight, innovation and creativity

1. Author

Edward de Bono (born May 19, 1933, Malta), was a British psychologist, writer, physician, inventor, expert and consultant in the field of creative thinking and innovation. A pioneer in the development of creative abilities and the application of methods to enhance creativity.

2. History

The term, concept and method “lateral thinking” were first introduced in 1967 in the E. de Bono “The Use of Lateral Thinking” (1967). The theory and practice of lateral thinking were further developed in the books The Five-Day Course in Thinking (1968) and The Mechanisms of the Mind (1969).
In 1970, Edward de Bono published the book Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, (1970), in which a holistic system of lateral thinking techniques was presented.
The lateral thinking concept was improved, supplemented and systematized in his next books and especially in Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas (1992).
In 1985, he wrote the book Six Thinking Hats (1985), which proposes an effective and simple method of activating creativity and practical problem solving, which is a concentrated form that expresses the essence of the lateral thinking concept.
E. de Bono has written over 80 books and programs, with translations into 43 languages. He offers ways to implement the Lateral thinking technique in education, management, in real life, and also considers creative thinking outside the box as the thinking of the new millennium (New Thinking for the New Millennium, 1999), the new religion (H+ (Plus): A New Religion,2006)), as the only possible way to survive in the modern world (Think! Before It is Too Late (2009)/
The method and techniques of lateral thinking are actively used in many successful innovative companies around the world, such as IBM, Boeing, BT (UK), Nokia (Finland), Mondadori (Italy), Siemens (Germany), 3M (Germany), NTT (Japan), GM, Kraft, Nestle, Du Pont, Prudential, Shell, Bosch (Germany), Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young and many others. The global consultancy, Accenture, chose him as one of the fifty most influential business thinkers.
Edward de Bono has lectured in 61 countries. He designed and runs creativity development courses: CoRT (Cognitive Research and Trust), SixHats (course on self-organization of thinking and creative work in a group), and a professional program “de Bono Thinking Tools 24 × 7”.

3. Description

Lateral Thinking is a deliberate, systematic way of solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, which involves looking at problems from diverse, unexpected angles and from completely different perspectives.
Lateral Thinking covers a variety of methods and is a set of systematic techniques used for changing concepts and perceptions and generating new ones.

4. Methodological and theoretical grounds

Lateral thinking is cutting across patterns in a self-organising system and has very much to do with perception.

1. Changing patterns and concepts

1. Our brains are “pattern recognition systems”, which help us to quickly evaluate our surroundings and respond accordingly.
Self-organizing information systems form patterns. We need to look at the human brain as a “self-organizing information system.” The mind is a pattern-making system. The information system of the mind acts to create patterns and to recognize them.
The effectiveness of the mind in its one-way communication with the environment arises from this ability to create patterns, store them and recognize them.
2. The patterns tend to become established ever more rigidly since they control attention. It is extremely difficult to change patterns once they have become established.
In other words, the mind is a cliché making and cliché using the system.
Vertical thinking is analytical, selective and sequential, lateral thinking is provocative, generative and can make jumps. With lateral thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. Lateral thinking and vertical thinking are not only opposite but also complementary. Effectiveness is the aim of both.
The purpose is to overcome these limitations by providing a means for restructuring, for escaping from cliché” patterns, for putting information together in new ways to give new ideas.
3. Lateral thinking is concerned with changing patterns. Instead of taking a pattern and then developing it as is done in vertical thinking, lateral thinking tries to restructure the pattern by putting things together in a different way.
“Lateral thinking” is the creativity concerned with changing ideas, perceptions and concepts. Instead of working harder with the same ideas, perceptions and concepts, we seek to change them.
It is exploring multiple possibilities and approaches instead of pursuing a single approach.

2. Changing perceptions

1. Out-of-the-box lateral thinking is closely related to imaginative thinking and perception. Perception has a patterning nature. Namely, patterns determine perception and we look through patterns in reality. On the other hand, perception is a self-organizing process that creates patterns.
Deliberate changing of perception and the way we look at things leads to a pattern-changing and new understanding of the situation or problem. A different point of view is a different way of understanding and doing something. Creativity involves breaking out established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.
2. Lateral thinking helps to move from one way of seeing something to another parallel perspective, but once there the problem may be considered in a new light and appear obvious.
3. The most basic principle of lateral thinking is that any particular way of looking at things is only one among other possible ways. Lateral thinking involves changing perceptions and flexibility and it is specifically concerned with the generation of new perceptions, ideas and creative solutions.
Lateral thinking is a way to shake up the problem by looking at it from different perspectives. It is about moving sideways when working on a problem to try different perceptions, different concepts and different points of entry.

5. Fundamental aspects of the lateral thinking process

1. The Deliberate generation of alternative views of looking at things.
2. The challenging of assumptions.

6. Lateral Thinking Techniques

The purpose of the formal techniques is to provide an opportunity for the practical use of lateral thinking so that one may gradually acquire the lateral thinking habit.
In his book “Lateral Thinking: creativity step by step” (1970) Edward de Bono proposed a number of techniques of lateral thinking, some of which were already known, and some authors later became original, independent methods of activating creativity:

The generation of alternatives

The most basic principle of lateral thinking is that any particular way of looking at things is only one among many other possible ways. Lateral thinking is concerned with exploring these other ways by restructuring and rearranging the information that is available. The very word ‘lateral’ suggests the movement sideways to generate alternative patterns instead of moving straight ahead with the development of one particular pattern.
In the natural search for alternatives, one is looking for the best possible approach, in the lateral search for alternatives, one is trying to produce as many alternatives as possible. One is not looking for the best approach but for as many different approaches as possible
In order to change the search for alternatives from being a good intention to a practical routine one can set a quota. A quota is a fixed number of alternative ways of looking at a situation.
Suitable quotas might be three, four or five alternatives. Having a quota does not of course stop one from generating even more alternatives but it does ensure that one generates at least the minimum.

Challenging Assumptions

It is usually assumed that the basic ideas are sound but they can be questioned. A cliché is a stereotyped phrase, a stereotyped way of looking at something or describing something. But clichés refer not only to arrangements of ideas but to ideas themselves. It is usually assumed that the basic ideas are sound and then one puts them together to give different patterns.
General agreement about an assumption is no guarantee that it is correct. But the basic ideas are themselves patterns that can be restructured.
It is the purpose of lateral thinking to challenge any assumption for it is the purpose of lateral thinking to try and restructure any pattern. In lateral thinking, the intention is to create discomfort with any explanation. So as to look at things in different ways and increase the possibility of restructuring the pattern.
The ‘Why’ technique: The why technique is used to challenge assumptions. It is a focused and directed attempt at questioning ideas.


Creative lateral thinking involves building up to something new rather than analysing something old. Thus, innovation and creativity involve forward-thinking.
Regular critical thinking involves identifying and explaining the effect whereas forward thinking is concerned with bringing about an effect.

Suspended Judgment

Suspended judgment is a prerequisite for forward-thinking. One has to suspend all judgment of ideas and concepts. One is allowed to be wrong on the way even though one must be right in the end. In lateral thinking, judgment is delayed during the generative state of thinking in order to be applied during the selective stage.
The purpose of thinking is not to be right but to be effective. Being effective does eventually involve being right but there is a very important difference between the two. Being right means being right all the time. Being effective means being right only at the end
As a process, lateral thinking is concerned with change, not with proof. The emphasis is shifted from the validity of a particular pattern to the usefulness of that pattern in generating new patterns.


Design is used as practice for lateral thinking. In so far as it is not just a matter of copying, design requires a good deal of innovation.
The emphasis is on the different ways of doing things, the different ways of looking at things and the escape from clich concepts, the challenging of assumptions.
Unlike analysis, with the help of breaking down a complex and unknown situation into small pieces and synthesis, through which we create a new combination of these elements, the design puts forward a key requirement, and then, when executed, establishes new necessary relationships between the elements.
In military terms, in the first case, we advance evenly on all fronts, and in the second we deal a concentrated blow and then throw troops into the breakthrough.

Dominant ideas and critical factors

Unless one can convert a vague awareness to a definite pattern it is extremely difficult to generate alternative patterns, alternative ways of looking at the situation. One can more easily escape from something definite than from something vague.
Liberation from rigid patterns and the generation of alternative patterns are the aims of lateral thinking. Both processes are made much easier if one can pick out the dominant idea.
If one cannot pick out the dominant idea then any alternatives one generates are likely to be imprisoned within that vague general idea. It is only when one becomes aware of the framework that one can generate an alternative point of view outside of it.
The crucial factor restricts the way the problem is looked at. Again, each individual with a different perspective may come up with a different crucial factor.


The aim of lateral thinking is to look at things in different ways, to restructure patterns, to generate alternatives. The mere intention of generating alternatives is sometimes sufficient.
This technique is very similar to analysis. Fractionation deals with completely breaking down the situation into its components. However, lateral thinking uses this fractionation to provide material, which can be used to stimulate the restructuring of the original situation.

The reversal method

Wherever a direction is indicated then the opposite direction is equally well defined. Whenever there is a one-way relationship between two parties, the situation can be reversed by changing the direction of this relationship.
In the reversal method, one takes things as they are and then turns them around, inside out, upside down, back to front. Then one sees what happens. It is a provocative rearrangement of information. You make water run uphill instead of downhill. Instead of driving a car, the car leads you.
Therefore, the reversal method allows one to escape from looking at the situation in the standard way. Also, by disrupting the original way of looking at a situation one frees information that can come together in a new way. Finally, the main purpose is provocative. By making the reversal one moves to a new position.


Brainstorming is a formal setting for the use of lateral thinking. The main features of brainstorming are:
1. Cross stimulation. 2. Deferred judgment. 3. The formality of the situation.


Analogies are used to provide movement. In itself, an analogy is a simple story or situation. It becomes an analogy only when it is compared to something else.
The problem under consideration is related to the analogy and then the analogy is developed along its own lines of development. At each stage, the development is transferred back to the original problem. Thus the problem is carried along with the analogy.
What is happening in the analogy is transferred (as a process or relationship) to the actual problem.
Unlike its use in argument, analogy in lateral thinking is not to prove anything. They are simply used like all other lateral thinking techniques; to generate further ideas. Analogies are used as a method for generating further ideas.

Random stimulation

Instead of trying to work from within the idea, one can deliberately generate external stimulation, which then acts on the idea from outside. This is called random stimulation.
With random stimulation, one uses any information whatsoever. No matter how unrelated it may be no information is rejected as useless. The more irrelevant the information the more useful it may be.
The following points may serve to illustrate the way random stimulation can be used.
1. Accepting and even welcoming random inputs. Instead of shutting out something which does not appear relevant one regards it as a random input and pays it attention.
2. Exposure to the ideas of others.
3. Exposure to ideas from completely different 0elds. This sometimes goes under the heading of ‘across disciplinary fertilization’.
4. Physical exposure to random stimulation. This may involve wandering around an area, which contains a multitude of different objects, Three methods are suggested below:
1. Use of a dictionary to provide a random word.
2. Formal selection of a book or journal in a library.
3. The use of some routine to select an object from the surroundings (e.g. the nearest red object).
Random stimulation works because the mind has the ability to connect any two separate inputs no matter how unconnected they are.

Concepts / divisions / polarization

This limited attention span means that one only reacts to a bit of- the total environment. Over a period of time, one bit may be attended to after another
until the total environment is covered.
In effect, the total, continuous and overwhelming environment is divided up into separate attention areas.
Separation into units, selection of units, and combination of units in different ways together provide a very powerful information processing system. All these functions follow directly from the mechanism of mind.

The new word PO

PO is the tool for applying lateral thinking just as NO is a tool for applying logical thinking. PO allows arranging information in any way whatsoever. Also, by being nonsensical one can arrange information in a way that is different from the established patterns.
NO and PO
The concept of logical thinking is the selection and this is brought about by the processes of acceptance and rejection. Rejection is the basis of logical thinking. The rejection process is incorporated in the concept of the negative.
The concept of lateral thinking is insight restructuring and this is brought about through the rearrangement of information.
Rearrangement is the basis of lateral thinking and rearrangement means to escape from the rigid patterns established by experience. This language tool is PO. Once one learns the function and use of PO one has learned how to use lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is prereason. PO is never a judgment device. PO is a construction device. PO is a patterning device. The patterning process may also involve depatterning and repatteming.
These two functions are but different aspects of the same process but for convenience, they may be separated.
Creating new patterns.
Challenging old patterns.
These two functions can be expressed in another way:
Provocative and permissive: putting information together in new ways and allowing unjustified arrangements of information.
Liberating: disrupting old patterns in order to allow the imprisoned information to come together in a new way.

Blocked by openness

If you are moving along the main highway, you may not even be aware of the existence of side tracks and branch points. You are blocked by the openness of the main road.
In our thinking, we have developed methods of dealing with things that are wrong but no method for dealing with things that are right. When something is right out thinking comes to a halt.

Description / problem solving / design

Lateral thinking is most used when knowledge is readily available and the emphasis is on the best use of that knowledge. It is far more useful to practise lateral thinking
over a large number of small projects than to suppose that it is practised in the pursuit of a large project.
There are three practical situations that encourage the use of lateral thinking.
Description. Problem-solving. Design.
Describing a situation is a good way to show how different you can look at things. It is also an easy way to practice finding alternative points of view.
Problem Solving is a convenient format that allows you to practice using main lateral techniques.
In any problem there is the desired end point — something one wants to bring about What one wants to bring about may take a variety of
1. To resolve some difficulties (traffic congestion problem).
2. To bring about something new (design an apple-picking machine).
3. To do away with something unsatisfactory (road accidents, starvation)
Design projects are a special case of solving problems when you want to achieve some desired state of things. For this reason, design projects, as a rule, have a greater variety of solutions than problems.

Seven mental tools

Later, these lateral techniques were summarized and presented in the form of the seven mental tools that may turn out to be novel and useful solutions to the problem being addressed. Lateral thinking can be learned, and these techniques can help you apply lateral thinking to problem-solving and idea generation.
1. Alternatives: Use concepts to breed new ideas.
2. Focus: Sharpen or change your focus to improve your creative efforts.
3. Challenge: Break free from the limits of accepted ways of operating.
4. Random Entry: Use unconnected input to open new lines of thinking.
5. Provocation: Move from a provocative statement to useful ideas.
6. Harvesting: Select the best of early ideas and shape them into useable approaches.
7. Treatment of Ideas: Develop ideas and shape them to fit an organization or situation.
Edward de Bono described in more detail his most successful techniques and offers a number of new ones, such as:

PMI “Plus, Minus, Interesting”
Six Hats of Thinking (1985).