Monday, November 24, 2014

Edward de Bono's Lateral Thinking

The term ‘lateral thinking’ was coined in 1967 by Edward de Bono, a Maltese psychologist, physician, and writer. Two of his most well known concepts are lateral thinking (de Bono 1977) and the six thinking hats (de Bono 1999).  ‘Lateral’ comes from the Latin word laterus meaning ‘a side.’ The process of lateral thinking – generation of novel solutions to problems- literally means sideways thinking.  According to de Bono (1990), information patterns are stable cognitive entities such as concepts, ideas, thoughts and images, which exist in our minds and which provide a perspective that directs information processing/thinking/problem solving in a particular way. 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 escape from the rigid patterns established by experience. Lateral thinking is the type of thinking that aims to broaden the knowledge base through the generation of new possibilities.  Lateral thinking systematically forces thinking towards insight, creativity and innovation. Lateral thinking is both an attitude and a method of using information.

Hypothesis of lateral thinking
Lateral thinking is based on the hypothesis that the human brain is a self-organizing information processor in which the output depends upon both internal and external environment and on previous experience. Thinking laterally deliberately disrupts the established cognitive patterns and the information is processed differently. The outcome is the generation of   a novel perspective which is often referred to as an ‘aha’ moment.


The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines lateral thinking as ‘seeking to solve problems by unorthodox or apparently illogical methods’. Lateral thinking, according to de Bono, “tries to restructure information patterns by putting things together in a different way.” Lateral thinking is ‘out-of –the-box ‘non-linear thinking to be differentiated from logical, extrapolative thinking. Lateral thinking is moving sideways and looking at problems from multiple angles and perspectives.

Principle of lateral thinking

To get a different perspective on a problem, try breaking the elements up and recombining them in a different way (perhaps randomly).

Vertical and lateral thinking Bono divides thinking into two methods: vertical thinking and lateral thinking. Vertical thinking involves the implementation and utilization of already existent ideas (“digging the same hole deeper”) whereas lateral thinking involves developing new ideas (“digging a hole somewhere else”). According to de Bono, two processes necessary to stimulate lateral thinking are ‘escape’ and ‘provocation.’ Escape consists of rejecting assumptions and pre-formed concepts by shifting perspectives and provocation consists primarily suspending judgement (Murray 1992). The formal ways to set up provocations include escape, reversal, exaggeration, distortion and wishful thinking.
De Bono contrasted vertical to lateral thinking in the following ways: vertical thinking focuses on continuity; lateral thinking focuses on discontinuity. Vertical thinking chooses, lateral thinking changes; Vertical thinking is concerned with stability, lateral thinking is concerned with instability; Vertical thinking searches for what is right, lateral thinking searches for what is different; Vertical thinking is analytical, lateral thinking is provocative; vertical thinking is concerned with where an idea came from, lateral thinking is concerned with where the idea is going; vertical thinking moves in the most likely directions, lateral thinking moves in the least likely directions; vertical thinking develops an idea, lateral thinking discovers the idea.

Lateral thinking methods

Alternatives – using concepts as a breeding ground for new ideas.
Focus – targeting thinking.
Challenge – breaking free from the limits of current assumptions.
Random entry – inserting unconnected input to open up new lines of thinking.
Provocation and movement – generating illogical statements and using them as stepping stones to usable new ideas.
Harvesting – capturing creative output.
Treatment of ideas – developing ideas and shaping them to fit an organization or situation.

Lateral thinking techniques

The reversing technique involves examining a problem by turning it completely around inside out, or upside down.
The analogy technique involves developing a statement about similarities among objects, persons and situations.
The cross-fertilization technique involves asking experts from other fields to view the problem and suggest methods for solving it from their own areas of expertise.
The mixing metaphors involves using a metaphor to bring a new look to a situation or problem.
The random juxtaposition involves introducing a completely new notion to allow more ideas to be generated.

Critical factors related to lateral thinking

1.  Focus on dominant ideas that come to mind that polarize perception of a problem.
2. Look at the multiple perspectives of the problem.
3. Relax the logical thinking process.
4. Allow ‘outside of the box’ ideas to come to mind and be considered even though they do not fit into the logical, scientific thinking pattern.

Steps in lateral thinking process

1.  Escape from clichés and fixed patterns
2. Challenges assumptions
3. Generate alternatives
4. Jump to new ideas and then see what happens.
5. Find new entry points from which to move forward.

Technique of six thinking hats (STH)

This method uses six different ‘natures’ of thought, each represented by a different coloured ‘hat’(real or imaginary). The hats are designed to foster ‘parallel thinking’ during group problem –solving efforts. The same hat or way of thinking is adopted by all group members, thus creating a shared focus. De Bono (1999) considered the hats as ‘direction labels for thinking.’
1. White hat thinking – information –based thinking – calls for facts and figures.
2. Red hat thinking – emotional thinking – clarifies emotional reactions to issues.
3. Black hat thinking – critical thinking – assesses the risk.
4. Yellow hat thinking – positive or optimistic thinking – looks at the benefits.
5. Green hat thinking – imaginative thinking – focuses on creative thinking.
6. Blue hat thinking – thinking about thinking – manages thinking process.

Benefits of lateral thinking

1.  Lateral thinking is essentially a problem-solving technique or useful habit of mind. Lateral thinking is searching for side entrances rather than using a front –door approach to resolving a problem. Lateral thinking causes a shift in thinking or perception; it completely breaks from previous thoughts or paradigms.
2. Lateral thinking leads to innovation, which in turn, leads to realistic solutions. Think laterally helps to increase the range of options or more alternate ideas available and can often help to overcome tricky problems. Lateral thinking even turns problems into opportunities.
3. Lateral thinking enhances the effectiveness of vertical thinking by challenging the arrogance and the cliché-pattern of thinking associated with logic.
4. Lateral thinking develops an awareness of current ideas and practices; also aids in the development of new ideas.

Final thoughts

Lateral thinking is not generally a natural phenomenon. It is a skill that can be developed through regular practice and with a willingness to try something different. Vertical thinking is concerned with digging the same hole deeper. Lateral thinking is concerned with digging the hole somewhere else (Edward de Bono 1977). Lateral thinking generates ideas and vertical thinking develops them (De Bono 1968). We are educated to be analytical logical thinkers. Most of our thinking is analytical, convergent, critical and left-brain thinking. There are many other ways of thinking or methods for exploring multiple possibilities and approaches instead of pursuing a single approach.
                             Think laterally and turn problems into opportunities

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