Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono, a Maltese psychologist, physician and writer. It first appeared in the title of his book "The Use of Lateral Thinking", published in 1967. De Bono defines lateral thinking as methods of thinking concerned with changing concepts and perception. Lateral thinking is about reasoning that is not immediately obvious and about ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.

Techniques of lateral thinking

Techniques that apply lateral thinking to problems are characterized by the shifting of thinking "patterns", away from entrenched or predictable thinking to new or unexpected ideas. A new idea that is the result of lateral thinking is not always a helpful one, but when a good idea is discovered in this way it is usually obvious in hindsight, which is a feature lateral thinking shares with a joke.

There are a number of mental tools or methods that can be used to bring about lateral thinking. These include the following:

Random Entry: Choose an object at random, or a noun from a dictionary, and associate that with the area you are thinking about.

For example imagine you are thinking about how to improve Wikipedia. Choosing an object at random from an office you might see a fax machine. A fax machine transmits images over the phone to paper. Fax machines are becoming rare. People send faxes directly to known phone numbers. Perhaps this makes you think of providing ways to embed wiki articles in emails and other websites, as is done with youtube videos. Does it stimulate other Wikipedia ideas for you?

Provocation: Declare the usual perception out of bounds, or provide some provocative alternative to the usual situation under consideration. Prefix the provocation with the term 'Po" to signal that the provocation is not a valid idea put up for judgement but a stimulus for new perception.

As an example see the provocation on cars having square wheels given as example 2 below.

Challenge: Simply challenge the way things have always been done or seen, or the way they are. This is done not to show there is anything wrong with the existing situation but simply to direct your perceptions to exploring outside the current area.

For example you could challenge coffee cups being produced with a handle. There is nothing wrong with coffee cups having handles so the challenge is a direction to explore without defending the status quo. 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.

There are many other techniques ranging from Focus methods through to Harvesting and Concept Shaping. All these tools are practical matters for circumstances where our normal automatic perceptions and pattern matching tend to keep us trapped "within the box".

Lateral thinking and problem solving

Edward de Bono points out that the term problem solving implies that there is a problem to respond to and that it can be resolved. That eliminates situations where there is no problem or a problem exists that cannot be resolved. It is logical to think about making a good situation, that has no problems, into a better situation. Sometimes a problem cannot be solved by removing its cause.

We may need to solve some problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.– (Edward de Bono)

Lateral thinking can be used to help in solving problems but can also be used for much more.

Lateral thinking and critical thinking

Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the truth value of statements and seeking errors. Lateral thinking is more concerned with the movement value of statements and ideas. A person would use lateral thinking when they want to move from one known idea to creating new ideas.It can also be put as, critical thinking is like a post-mortem while lateral thinking is like diagnosis.

Example 1 of lateral thinking

:"It took two hours for two men to dig a hole five feet deep. How deep would it have been if ten men had dug the hole for two hours?"

The answer appears to be 25 feet deep. This answer assumes that the thinker has followed a simple mathematical relationship suggested by the description given, but we can generate some lateral thinking ideas about what affects the size of the hole which may lead to different answers:
*Time remaining the same, the answer (25 ft.) assumes a linear proportionality between the Number of men and the Work quantity, which is not necessarily true. There can be quantitative/qualitative factors affecting the relation and thus the answer. The following points for instance may alter the relation.
* A hole may need to be of a certain size or shape so digging might stop early at a required depth.
* The deeper a hole is, the more effort is required to dig it, since waste soil needs to be lifted higher to the ground level. There is a limit to how deep a hole can be dug by manpower without use of ladders or hoists for soil removal, and 25 feet is beyond this limit.
* Similarly, the men need to be able to get out of the hole later - which depending on how steep the sides are. Normally, getting out of a 25 foot deep hole requires ladders, rope or other equipment.
* Ten men would need more room to work side-by-side, and so may need to dig the hole wider rather than deeper. Each man digging needs space to use a shovel.
* Deeper soil layers may be harder to dig out, or we may hit bedrock or the water table.
* Digging in soil, clay, or sand each present their own special considerations.
* Ten men are more likely to disagree on a digging method than two men.
* Holes required to be dug beyond a certain depth may require structural reinforcement to prevent collapse of the hole.
* The shape of the hole may not be a prism: if it is a cone-shaped hole, which is wider at the top than the bottom, then even if the volume of the hole is five times that of the first hole, it may not be five times as deep.
* Digging in a forest becomes much easier once we have cut through the first several feet of roots.
* It is possible that with more people working on a project, each person may become less efficient due to increased opportunity for distraction, the assumption he can slack off, more people to talk to, etc.
* More men could work in shifts to dig faster for longer.
* There might be fewer shovels than available men.
* The two hours dug by ten men may be under different weather conditions than the two hours dug by two men.
** Rain could flood the hole to prevent digging.
** Temperature conditions may freeze the men before they finish.
* A wild bear may approach the hole and maul the men while they are up to their shoulders in said hole.
* Would we rather have 5 holes each 5 feet deep?
* The two men may be an engineering crew with digging machinery.
* Maybe one of the 10 men will die, less likely if only 2 men are working.
* One man in each group might be a manager who will not actually dig.
* The extra eight men might not be strong enough to dig, or much stronger than the first two.
* There must be a reason for digging and ten men are more likely to hinder each other's progress, due to personal profit and expectations : competition, disagreement on the place where it would be better to dig, disagreement on who should use a shovel to dig and who should use a bucket to carry the soil out of the hole, ...
* A greater number may induce a greater diversity and the babel tower syndrome may occur: incompatibility within the workers and failure to understand each other effectively.
* With ten men you are five times more likely to break a shovel.
* Assuming that they will dig the hole five times faster, they first take a 96 minute break; however, at the end of their 24 minute shovel dance, they have only a three foot deep hole because the mathematical variables were far too complex for mere hole diggers to consider.
* The men could begin digging horizontally after reaching their depth of five feet, leaving the 10 men with a wider, 5 foot deep hole.

The most useful ideas listed above are outside the simple mathematics implied by the question.

Example 2 of lateral thinking

Consider the statement "Cars should have square wheels." When considered with critical thinking, this would be evaluated as a poor suggestion and dismissed as impractical. The lateral thinking treatment of the same statement would be to speculate where it leads. Humor is taken intentionally with lateral thinking. A person would imagine "as if" this were the case, and describe the effects or qualities. Someone might observe: "square wheels" would produce very predictable bumps. If bumps can be predicted, then suspension can be designed to compensate. This leads to the idea of active suspension. A sensor connected to suspension could examine the road surface ahead on cars with round wheels too. A car could have a sensor for determining when it was going to hit a bump that feeds back to suspension that would know to compensate. The initial "provocative" statement has been left behind, but it has also been used to indirectly generate the new and potentially more useful idea.

Example of provocative operation

Example 3 of Lateral Thinking

"A man and his son are in a car crash. The man is killed and the son is taken to hospital gravely injured. When he gets there, the surgeon says "I can't operate on this boy- he is my son!" How is this possible?"

This is an example of an instant perception blocking the mind's ability to explore alternatives. In this case the instant perception is that most people imagine a surgeon as a male; this leads to the conclusion that either the surgeon or the "father" in the car crash was not the boy's real father.

If you switch your perception to allow for a female surgeon then the answer is suddenly obvious, the surgeon is the boy's mother.

Most people imagine a surgeon as a male, but in this case it is the opposite! Lateral thinking is the method of switching perceptions to allow the alternate view point.

Another example for an instant perception blocking the mind's ability to explore alternatives is that one assumes the surgeon is telling the truth. Maybe he was simply wrong (the son might have looked exactly like his own son) or maybe he was lying, because for some reason he didn't want to operate on him (he could have felt bad or drunk alcohol before).

Or the son could have two fathers - one of them could have been his adoptive father. Or if the boy was one of two separated twins, with the other growing up with the surgeon for whatever reason, then the surgeon would have recognized the boy as his own son.

Or the surgeon is actually talking about the man who died in the accident, making the surgeon the boy's grandfather.

Lateral thinking puzzles

When using lateral thinking puzzles it is important to check your assumptions. You need to be open-minded, flexible and creative in your questioning and able to put lots of different clues and pieces of information together. Once you reach a viable solution you keep going in order to refine it or replace it with a better solution.

ome fun lateral thinking questions

# There is a man who lives on the top floor of a very tall building. Every day he gets the elevator down to the ground floor to leave the building to go to work. Upon returning from work though, he can only travel half of the distance up riding in the elevator and has to walk the rest of the way up unless it's raining! How can this be?
# Mel Colly stared through the dirty soot-smeared window on the 26th floor of the office tower. Overcome with depression he slid the window open and jumped through it. After he landed he was completely unhurt. Since there was nothing to cushion his fall or slow his descent, how could he have survived?
# There was a hotel where the visitors complained about the slow moving elevator and how long they had to wait for it to come. It became so severe that the manager was asked to do something about it. If you were the manager what would you suggest? (Picked up from the book Mediocre but Arrogant MBA)


# The man is very, very short and can only reach halfway up the elevator buttons (assuming the levels of the buttons designating floors increases from bottom to top). However, if it is raining then he will have his umbrella with him and can press the higher buttons using it. Alternatively, the man's daily job finishes in this very building halfway up, except when it's raining. Perhaps he's a security guard who makes rounds floor by floor in the morning and watches a security monitor in the afternoon, except when it's raining. It never said he takes the elevator before walking, just that he does both.
# Mel Colly was so sick and tired of window washing, he opened the window and jumped inside. Alternatively, Mel's office was in another building, on the first floor, and he was looking at the 26th-floor window of another tower; "the window" in the second sentence then refers to that of Mel's office, not the 26th-floor one. Mel could also have had a balcony.
# Most of us would come up with ideal answers like - call the elevator service center and ask them to send someone to fix it. Warn the visitors about it. Change the system. Lateral thinking applied, a consultant advised the hotel to fix mirrors next to the elevators. This would cause people to be busy looking at themselves in the mirror and adjusting their dress, hair and may be watching someone else on the sly... They would not feel the wait. This actually worked for the hotel. And they did not receive complaints anymore!!

ee also

* Thinking outside the box
* Provocative operation
* Lateral thinking puzzles, also referred as situation puzzles


*Lateral Thinking. Edward De Bono, 1970. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-021978-1
*Po: Beyond Yes and No. Edward De Bono, 1972. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-021715-0
*Serious Creativity. Edward De Bono, 1992. Harper Business. ISBN 0-88730-635-7

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Look at other dictionaries:

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