What Is Lateral Thinking?

A Tool for Creativity and Brainstorming

Lateral thinking is a term developed in 1973 by Edward De Bono, with the publication of his book Lateral thinking: creativity step by step.

Lateral thinking involves looking at a situation or problem from a unique or unexpected point of view.

De Bono explained that typical problem-solving attempts involve a linear, step by step approach. More creative answers can arrive from taking a step “sideways” to re-examine a situation or problem from an entirely different and more creative viewpoint.

Imagine that your family arrives home from a weekend trip to find Mom’s favorite vase broken on the floor beside the dining room table. Close examination shows that the family cat’s paw prints are clearly visible on the table top. Naturally, the family cat is in big trouble—right?

The logical assumption would be that the cat was walking around on the table and had knocked the vase to the floor. But that is a linear assumption. What if the sequence of events was different? A lateral thinker might consider that the vase broke first—and then the cat jumped onto the table. What could have caused that to happen? Perhaps a small earthquake had occurred while the family was out of town—and the chaos caused by the trembling floor, the odd noises, and the crashing vase had caused the cat to jump onto the furniture? It is a possible answer!

De Bono suggests that lateral thinking is necessary for coming up with solutions that aren’t so straightforward.

It is easy to see from the example above that lateral thinking comes into play when solving crimes. Lawyers and detectives do employ lateral thinking when attempting to solve crimes, because the sequence of events is often not as straightforward it first appears to be.

Students can find that lateral thinking is an especially useful technique for the creative arts.

When writing a short story, for example, lateral thinking would be an effective tool for coming up with unexpected twists and turns in a plot.

Lateral thinking is also a skill that researchers use when evaluating evidence or interpreting sources.