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The Role of Lateral Thinking in Understanding Creative Thinking

The Role of Lateral Thinking in Understanding Creative Thinking

Lateral thinking almost literally takes thinking in an entirely different direction for most people. It can be viewed as the opposite of vertical thinking. Vertical thinking represents linear, ordered thought and problem solving. It is the line of thinking used to follow the scientific method and the approach chosen for its reason, logic, and sequence. There are many advantages to vertical thinking as a broad concept.

Lateral thinking was explored as a concept for the purpose of inspiring greater creativity in problem solving. For people who are more accustomed to vertical thinking, lateral thinking will be quite a stretch, but the potential rewards for developing creativity and coming to new ideas is great. For those who do think differently from what is typically described as vertical thinking, lateral thinking may still be a challenge.

Thinking laterally involves letting go of patterns and comfortable processes. It means giving up the direct approach. It means paying attention to many more divergent things. While vertical thinking is laser focused on moving toward a goal or solution, lateral thinking may not seek a solution at all, in some forms. In fact, seeking the solution might be the distraction to far more creative discoveries. This will be a wildly different approach and shift in thinking for many people for that reason.

As different and seemingly incompatible as vertical and lateral thinking may be, both can be valuable at different phases of research, design, development, and implementation of projects in and out of business, even within different phases of the same project. Understanding both, and having both in a mental toolkit for thinking and personal creativity, can be invaluable to the individual, the group, and the profession.

Mental Tools and Games
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There are a number of valuable mental tools and games that have been developed to assist in utilizing lateral thinking, and to inspire creativity. Each one will be explained so that you can use it to help develop your creativity. Before that, it will be helpful to better understand lateral thinking. Unlike vertical thinking, lateral thinking may be a little tougher to fully encapsulate, but it can be described in ways that make it easier to understand and use.

Each practice of lateral thinking involves an indirect approach on the problems or ideas that are the catalysts for the need to think about something in the first place. In many ways, lateral thinking purposely chooses to move away from, or more accurately, askew to the problem or project, itself. Creativity means different and new. Lateral thinking is all about different and new right down to the way of thinking and the course that thinking follows.

In some ways, the great value in lateral thinking is in moving away from the central problem or task. Most mental blocks or repeated mental loops are attributed to being too focused on the task at hand or one aspect of that problem that is particularly difficult or troubling. Everything from writer's block, to performance anxiety, comes down to a fixation upon some sticking point. The individual is blocked from what comes next. There is a desired sequence, but the next step in it is unknown, daunting, or confusing. The way forward is blocked mentally, or in some other capacity.

Sometimes reviewing the sequence helps put things into perspective, but sometimes it compounds the problem and the thinker gets trapped in a self-imposed mental loop going around and around the same sequence of thoughts, over and over. Each desperate mental pass becomes less productive than the last, and the process is derailed entirely. Panic will begin to set in and all creativity is stifled and shut down right at the moment that it is most needed.

Lateral thinking addresses this very condition in moving out and away from the ideas and sequences that are the cause and source of the block or loop. It is a mental stirring up of the pieces to look for a new way. It does not, in effect, destroy anything that has been accomplished, but it allows the freedom to let go and escape the mental traps. After lateral thinking is used, it is always possible to come back to the project's accomplishments in vertical thinking now with a number of new ideas generated by a lateral thinking process or activity. One might be the next step in the process that gets things moving again, even though lateral thinking may not have actually been seeking that exact answer.

Lateral thinking may also give perspective on a project that reveals the process or thinking is completely flawed, and this is the source of the sticking point. This may be an uncomfortable discovery, but it may be a necessary one in some cases – a discovery that only stepping away with the indirect approach of lateral thinking might reveal.

Lateral thinking embraces many ideas at once. This can be mentally confusing and mentally distracting. Sometimes this is the point of engaging in lateral thinking. This distraction and confusion can be the mental stimulation required to bring out new ideas, and to engage different parts of the mind. Lateral thinking embraces the distraction and uses it. It explores the chaos and the randomness, without being afraid of it.


Part of this is achieved by not being deeply concerned about implementation. Many ideas may have no obvious application. A lot of what is discovered in the lateral thinking process will likely have no connection to the project at hand. Some ideas may, though. Some ideas will probably be quite useful and full of potential, but the lateral thinking approach to creativity seeks to not get stuck on any one idea or any one, narrow train of thought -- no matter how promising. It is often seeking to leap across to other ideas, farther out from what has already been discovered. There may be more interesting things beyond what has been discovered early in the process. This openness to more and all ideas may seem counterproductive, but it has vast potential implications for personal creativity.

Lateral thinking is largely concerned with breaking down thinking patterns. No matter how creative any one individual may be, it is still easy to get caught in mental ruts. As human beings, we naturally fall into patterns and repeat procedures. We go back to methods and approaches that have worked for us in the past. This may still produce creative ideas for some people, but the act of repeating patterns can gradually lead to diminishing results. Lateral thinking recognizes this and seeks out ways to scatter the thinking of the individual from their safe, practiced patterns -- whatever those may be.

This concept holds value for everyone along the creative spectrum. It increases risk taking. It refreshes thinking. It is very likely to lead to ideas that would not have been achieved otherwise. Lateral thinking is a valuable approach to breaking out of the comfort zone. It is a sure mode of reaching more out-of-the-box material.

Lateral thinking largely begins with leaving behind what has been done before, and the way it has been done -- at least for a little while.

As lateral thinking is an uncomfortable process for many people, and it is designed to break individuals out of their comfort zone, much of its process is based on provoking. Many of the creative thinking tools designed to utilize lateral thinking approaches are, themselves, meant to provoke. This can take the form of provoking deeper thought, challenging preconceived notions and beliefs, or actually pushing the thinker, herself. Anger is not the goal of lateral thinking, but even anger and other negative emotions that might come from thinking different or being driven in new directions can lead to inspired ideas under the right conditions.

The provocative nature of lateral thinking is part of the process of breaking away from old patterns of thinking and leaving old ideas behind. An object at rest requires a force to act upon it to get into motion. On a mental level, the tools of lateral thinking can serve as that force to stimulate motion from the mental processes that have taken a rest in our accepted patterns of thinking and behaving.

Having ideas challenged or beliefs questioned can be uncomfortable, or even upsetting. This does not have to be beliefs of a political or religious nature. People hold beliefs of different types about many different things. This could be beliefs about how marketing works. It could be how we think a product works or should be used. It could be the way we write a story or a blog post. We may hold beliefs about what an organization is about, and what it is meant to do. Lateral thinking can bring all these things into question through the open exploration of completely unrelated concepts. By moving our thinking away from a problem, we could very well question the nature of the problem entirely or be provoked into rejecting our entire approach to solving the problem. This process can be an emotional one, even when dealing with ideas or problems that are not considered emotionally based at all. This is not a bad thing. Creativity often requires an unexpected approach, or a new destination. Provocation may be required to get to those places, and lateral thinking is a proven method of provoking new thought and new ideas.

The Why

One good way to start a lateral thought process is summed up in the question, "why." In this way, children may be thinking laterally more often, and more effectively, than adults. Asking why over and over is not meant to be childish or annoying. Lateral thinking may be contrary and it may be contrary for its own sake sometimes, but the contrariness does serve a creative purpose. By challenging what we think and the reason we think it, we begin to think deeper and discover new things. Whatever the concept or belief is, ask why. Give a solid, thoughtful answer. Then, take that answer, find its core, and ask why again. Let the question take the discussion and thoughts deeper and in new directions. Answer the question seriously, without frustration, and without concern for where it might take you -- even if it feels pointless or off course. From that answer, dare to ask why again. Answer again with as much depth and intensity as you can. Ask another why about that answer. This may feel a bit like the annoying child asking why the sky is blue, but there is meaningful discovery to be made, even if that discovery is not completely understood or appreciated, at first. Trust that there is creative value, and don't be afraid to continue the process beyond where you think it should be abandoned. There is more to be found further along the process for those who dare to keep thinking, and to keep pushing themselves. Lateral thinking is found in that push, and the more it is practiced the more free flow that process will become for the creative thinker and the development of personal creativity.

Lateral thinking may be trying to break down thinking patterns, challenge existing beliefs, and scattering the building blocks, but it is often for the greater purpose of expanding concepts. Asking why over and over may feel like diving deeper into minutia and following insignificant lines of thought, but each new piece is actually making the starting concept bigger. In the end, the thinker is using this creative exploration to add more understanding to the ideas being attacked. More connections will be made, and a more complex mental picture is drawn at the conclusion of the process. Other approaches of linear thinking succeed due to their focus and exclusion of extra ideas. Lateral thinking opens multiple possibilities and includes more options. In some ways, the lateral thinker has the potential for a wider scope of understanding than the vertical thinker. In this way, lateral thinking can be quite useful in developing the level of understanding needed for solving a particular problem, or finding success in a complex project.

In challenging our set ways of thinking, lateral thinking has the ability to expose misconceptions and errors in a way that other lines of thought might overlook. Lateral thinking doesn't just challenge what is known, it seeks to actively disprove what is known. Sometimes the thinker will come away from this provocation still confident in the previous belief or previous process. Other times, the concept has been shown for its flaws and the reasonable person is left with the clear understanding that the previously known item must be questioned further, rethought, or discarded entirely. This is a valuable process and aspect of lateral thinking. It is difficult to find our own mistakes and it is quite powerful to discover a mistake, ourselves, and to set about correcting it.

A little more subtle than a mistake or an outright right or wrong judgment is to disprove a belief we might hold that considers an idea more narrow than it really is. What we believe about something may be true, but it may not be the whole truth. In challenging ourselves and our thinking on what we know to be true, we can potentially develop a more complete or broader understanding of the knowledge we already hold.


From here, lateral thinking can also reveal problems that were previously hidden. This may seem like making more problems, but the truth is that a problem can't be solved unless it is discovered and known. Linear styles of thinking run the risk of looking at a problem in too shallow or too narrow of a scope. This can overlook layers of the problem, or completely miss the real source of the problem. Lateral thinking has the potential to get past this particular limitation. By expanding out from the known or perceived problem, lateral thinking may uncover or discover new or underlying issues that need to be addressed. It can suggest broader solutions that address a deeper concern than the narrow, laser focused approach may achieve. Problem solvers benefit from a more robust exploration of all the potential issues and all the available data. Lateral thinking in its indirect approach can actually reveal deeper patterns in data that are not as obvious from first glance. This type of thinking can reveal patterns involving items that might otherwise be considered unconnected or unrelated.

Lateral thinking is an important approach available to people seeking to solve problems, develop personal creativity, and explore all the possibilities. Even for people who are more concrete or more vertical in their thinking, there are ways to access lateral thinking to break out of a rut, or to find more ideas to utilize for any project or endeavor. Lateral thinking may not be the best approach to every task and it is not the only valid way of thinking, but it does represent an important doorway to creativity.

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