Unleash the Power of Lateral Thinking for Inspired Innovation

Person solving a maze.

Sometimes the key to solving a problem is ignoring the “rules.”

IBM has famously made “THINK!” a command to drive innovation. However, it’s not just the act of thought that’s innovative, but how you think. Learning to think laterally can offer surprising and elegant solutions to even thorny problems. So how do you bring lateral thinking to your organization?

What Is Lateral Thinking?

Generally, when you say “thinking,” you are referring to critical thinking, the process of evaluating statements for their level of truth and spotting errors. It’s a useful tool, but it only goes as far as its starting topic and can be confined by the data you have and the assumptions with which you start, both of which can shift quickly.

Lateral thinking is best described with traffic. If you’re applying critical thinking, you always take the highway, no matter the day, the time, or your personal circumstances. Sometimes this is fine; sometimes it strands you in rush hour. A lateral thinker will instead pull out a map and trace a different route, pull his bicycle out instead of his car and ride that to his destination instead, or even ask why he needs to go to that particular destination in the first place.

What’s The Value Of Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking is useful to even the staidest of industries because it offers fresh perspectives. Any company is in danger of becoming too wrapped up in the details to take a step back and ask questions about its basic assumptions. There’s valid reason for this; if you know, say, your budget and you have a sheaf of market research, it’s a good sturdy starting point.

However, you can also get lost in that. For example, say you have a nice, hefty budget to spend on a new idea. Do you even need that money? How was this budget determined? When were these decisions made? That last question, in particular, can offer a jolt; sometimes organizations discover they’ve been working from assumptions that are decades old. Lateral thinking yanks you out of your comfort zone and forces you to reconsider your approaches.

Hand coming out of a box holding a light bulb.

Don’t be afraid to push your ideas further.

How to Think Laterally

Despite its reputation as something for the brilliant, lateral thinking is easy to encourage in an organization. All you really have to do is challenge your assumptions and be willing to remove, replace, and experiment. There are a few ways of doing this that are worth trying, especially in the brainstorming phase.

One technique is “what if” questions. Say you want to break into a new market; two what-ifs might be “What if our customer base in the market is small, but has deep pockets?” or “What if our killer feature everyone wants disappeared tomorrow?” What ifs can be as wild or as staid as you want, but what’s important is that they shift around assumptions.

Another technique is to simply take things out of the equation. How would you advertise to this market if you had no advertising budget? How would you advertise if you had to do everything on a personal basis? How would you advertise if you only had email? Necessity is the mother of invention, so creating necessity can stimulate thought.

Lateral thinking needs many perspectives and a willingness to listen. To learn how to foster both, contact us!

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