What Is Lateral Thinking? (With Examples and Steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 5 December 2022

Published 27 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Being able to think creatively at work can be an especially useful skill, especially for addressing challenges. Sometimes work issues don't have an obvious solution and require creativity. Learning about lateral thinking can help you to think of innovative solutions at work. In this article, we explain what this type of thinking is, discuss how you can improve it and explore different industries that use it.

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What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking, sometimes called horizontal thinking, is a form of creative problem-solving. It involves deliberately avoiding the most obvious options and pursuing an unconventional approach instead. You can compare it to logical thinking, or vertical thinking, which is a straightforward method of solving problems.

Horizontal thinking can be especially useful for challenges related to design or any situation without clear, standard steps to use. Following a recipe or solving a math problem are examples of lateral thinking because they use logical, straightforward steps. It's best for more complex issues where there isn't an immediate and simple solution.

Related: Problem-Solving Skills Examples (With Steps to Develop Them)

Examples of horizontal thinking

Here are a few practical examples of how you might use horizontal thinking in the workplace:

Helping a challenging customer

In customer-facing positions, you might encounter customers who are unreasonable or demanding. Many companies have guidelines for approaching this issue and some include detailed steps. Others have broader guidelines to accommodate unique situations.

You might use horizontal thinking to find a solution if the standard steps don't work. For example, if a customer wants to return a product that disappointed them, the logical thinking solution is to process the refund. Horizontal thinking could involve processing the refund and finding a similar product that could fit the customer's needs. This solution can make the customer more likely to return because they don't leave the store thinking about the disappointing product experience. Instead, they may remember the positive and helpful service experience.

Related: What Is Conflict Resolution? (With Methods and Examples)

Working with missing supplies

You may face an issue that normally requires specific supplies or materials to solve. If they're available, then logical thinking can address the issue. When the supplies or materials aren't available, possibly because you're waiting on a shipment, you might want to use horizontal thinking to find a creative solution.

An example situation could be that half of the decorations you require for an event go missing during transit. There are a variety of ways you could solve this issue, such as replacing missing decorations by shopping at a local store. If you don't have access to new decorations, you could use horizontal thinking to come up with a creative placement for the remaining decorations. You might also find unconventional but effective decorating supplies at the venue.

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Addressing a lack of funds

You might work with a company or organisation, like a nonprofit, where the budget is low. Logical thinking approaches include reducing current costs or contacting common donors to ask for another donation. Those are useful approaches, but you can use horizontal thinking along with logical steps to maximise the impact on funds.

For example, you could come up with creative fundraising ideas. If you're working with a community centre, you could hold a family-friendly community event and charge for admission, food or games. You might also find creative ways to reduce costs, like partnering with a company or organisation to trade services or products.

How to improve horizontal thinking in 6 steps

Here are six steps you can use to improve your lateral thinking skills:

1. Try reverse thinking

Reverse thinking is when you start at the end of a process and work backwards. This can be helpful if it's difficult to find a solution or new idea. When you go through the steps backwards, you can gain a different perspective. It can also be useful when identifying an unknown cause for an issue. If you start with the known issue, you can work backwards and eventually find the cause and start working on the solution.

2. Use your senses

One way to get a new perspective on a situation is to use different senses, like touch, sight and hearing. For example, many writers read their drafts out loud while editing because hearing their words gives them a different perspective than reading the story on a screen. Some writers might create notecards with different plot points on them, organise them into the current plot structure and start moving the cards around. The act of physically moving cards, rather than scrolling through a digital document, can inspire new ideas.

3. Seek alternatives

Another way to improve horizontal thinking is to seek alternative solutions and different ways of thinking about a situation. Think about a common issue you see at work and look for a new solution. For example, if your colleagues frequently forget their work passwords and only a few IT employees have access to reset those passwords, a new solution could help colleagues remember passwords and help ease the workload for IT employees. You might propose training to teach everyone how to come up with effective passwords or find an automated system for password resets.

4. Consider mind mapping

Mind mapping is the process of creating a visual representation of ideas and concepts. The form your mind map takes depends on your personal preferences, but a common starting point is to write or draw an idea in the middle of a blank page. You can then add more ideas branching out from the central idea to create subtopics, which can have their own subtopics. Mind mapping helps improve horizontal thinking because it encourages the free exploration of ideas.

5. Challenge assumptions

If you have a situation where the most common advice isn't working, it may useful to challenge that advice. You can also challenge assumptions as a hypothetical exercise before an actual situation comes up. Thinking about how you can change or update common advice or traditions for various situations can be great practice in horizontal thinking.

Related: What Are Analytical Skills and Why Are They Important for Employment?

6. Pay attention

An important step in improving horizontal thinking is by being more attentive and observant. This can include your immediate surroundings, other people and the way your brain processes information. You might spot some details and they might help you create an innovative solution in another situation. Paying attention can also help you understand the way other people typically approach challenges and give you ideas on how to change those approaches.

Industries that use horizontal thinking

Horizontal thinking is useful in many industries, but some use it more than others. Here are a few industries where it can be especially beneficial:

Marketing

In marketing, you frequently come up with new ways to promote a product or service based on purpose and audience. The same marketing and advertising tactics that work with one target audience may not work with a different population. Horizontal thinking is extremely helpful for this kind of work because it's necessary for marketing strategies to be unique. It's easier to do effective marketing if you think differently from others.

Related: 10 Skills Needed for Marketing You Can Add to Your Resume

Media

Horizontal thinking is a common skill in many media careers because it's an industry that values creativity. If your work involves creating media, such as being a writer, musician or filmmaker, horizontal thinking is likely to be part of your job because you come up with new lyrics or unique storylines for films. In journalism, reporters work to find the facts and sources. It can help them identify sources or come up with interesting angles for their articles and videos.

Education

Horizontal thinking can be useful for administrators, educators and students. Although schools often have strict rules and guidelines, every situation and student is different. Administrators may require it to come up with school rules that benefit both students and staff. Educators may use this type of thinking when designing lesson plans for a diverse group of students.

Science

Although scientists commonly use logical thinking, they're also frequently required to use horizontal thinking. This is especially true if their work involves experimentation or innovation. If an experiment doesn't present the expected results, scientists find a new way to look at it, possibly changing variables or making a new hypothesis. Since they might work on something no one else has done before, horizontal thinking helps them solve complex issues with creativity.

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