How to Improve Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking is an important and crucial skill to have when at work, especially in the 21st century. The workplaces in the 21st century continue to evolve and focus on reducing cost while at the same time improving productivity. Thus, most workplaces now prefer to hire individuals who have lateral thinking capabilities, and can think of the novel, creative solutions in the face of diverse challenges that emerge in the workplace.

This article is aimed at providing you with tips on how to improve lateral thinking, it discusses what lateral thinking is, and answers some frequently asked questions about the same.

How to Improve Lateral Thinking?

There are seven techniques for improving lateral thinking. The term lateral thinking was coined by Edward de Bono (1970). The tips include:

  1. Look for alternative ways to solve the problems that crop up
  2. Train your brain to focus and think as clearly as possible
  3. Challenge your brain to think in ways that are novel and non-traditional
  4. Allow your brain to be open to a different streams of thoughts, allow random entry of thoughts
  5. Use provocation emerging from the situation into something that you can use
  6. Harvest many ideas, and then choose the best from them
  7. Treat and mould your ideas to fit the situation in the best possible way.

Learning these seven techniques is essential for lateral thinking. In essence, lateral thinking refers to finding fresh perspectives and newer ideas to address emerging challenges. Let’s take a look into what lateral thinking is in-depth.

What is lateral thinking?

Edward de Bono (1970) used the term lateral thinking to describe an individual’s ability to solve problems in novel ways that go beyond the usual logical and deductive reasoning strategies. He referred it as an ability of the individual to think of creative solutions to complex problems and challenges (De Bono, 1995).

In order to solve problems, people usually rely only on logical reasoning. Logical reasoning is also known as vertical thinking. Vertical thinking allows individuals to solve problems in a very direct and straightforward manner. However, on the opposite end, lateral thinking which is also known as horizontal thinking empowers individuals to examine and reason in different ways. Thus, as a result, those who engage in lateral thinking tend to find solutions that are not otherwise visual or obvious to others.

This is the reason why lateral thinking is now considered to be an important skill to possess in many industries. It is considered to be an indicator of creativity, which is crucial in the face of changes. In the face of changes where already-used regular solutions do not tend to work.

For example, if a company aims to expand to a new set of target audience it has not worked with before, the employers may prefer employees who possess lateral thinking to find newer ways to attract the new face of the audience. This is the very reason why lateral thinking tests/questions are provided to applicants before hiring them.

Some people may naturally possess the ability to think laterally, however it can also be learned. One thing to keep in mind is that lateral thinking is a tool that you may only use when there is something to fix. Hence, when you start learning how to think laterally it may not be noticeable until and unless you are faced with a new problem. 

You can, with time, become more efficient with the skill to think laterally with more and more practice. In his book, Edward de Bono has highlighted strategies that people can use in order to improve lateral thinking (De Bono, 1986). We will be discussing the pointers mentioned above in detail in this section.

Detailed Techniques to Improve Lateral Thinking

The detailed techniques to improve lateral thinking are: 

Become more aware

In order to expand the horizons of thinking, the first step is to help your brain become more aware of the information it processes. Before you even begin to tackle a new problem, it is important for you to realize that the brain has a tendency to rely on the patterns that have worked for it before. 

These are usually mental sets that we become victims of. However, you have to recognize that just that much knowledge isn’t enough; and when this logical thinking route fails, you can always use new mind maps for help. 

Since mind maps are visual aids, they kind of force your brain to adjust the thought processes and can lead to unexpected answers. These mind maps also allow you to jot down your ideas roughly, take a step back and think clearly about them.

Be Open to Random Stimulation

We usually block out all the external stimuli in order to concentrate on the problem we are working on. This is a good strategy, however, sometimes external stimuli can help break our reliance on logical thinking. Paying attention to random stimuli outside can help us lead to newer insights.

Looking for Newer Alternatives

De Bono has argued that even when we have an already worked-out solution, it is usually helpful to think of an alternative method as well. This can be beneficial even though it may seem unnecessary or unwarranted. 

How does this help? Well, when you come up with an alternative solution, it provides you with a chance to evaluate the problem from a side that you hadn’t previously considered. This technique involves using the already working concepts as a starting point in order to produce novel ideas.

Altering the Existing Process

The technique to alter existing options entails deliberately modifying the options available to you and doing the opposite of it. This can include breaking the thinking pattern you’re used to in smaller tinier fragments or denying the obvious solution. By changing the direction of the problem spaces available to you, you generate newer tools to build solutions.

Using Transitional Objects

Transitional objects mean people or ideas or things that may have specific features or characteristics that can inspire you to have newer ideas. The person or thing in question may have qualities that you must have seen in a movie or through your own imagination. The idea behind this technique is to bring alive the object or person using just your imagination.

Ask Random Questions, Whenever Possible

Asking random questions helps you connect the unconnected ideas together in order to solve the problem. Some questions that you can ask are, “What is the one thing that I definitely cannot do in this situation?”; “What will not help this situation at all?”; “What would XYZ person do in this situation?”.

Even though it may seem like this is an irrelevant practise in conventional thinking, it can help you pave way for newer ideas. This is how lateral thinking differs from conventional thinking.

Challenging Habits

Habitual thinking can be addictive as well as automatic. Thus, in order to build the ability to think laterally, you must challenge your habits. You have to believe that there are novel ways of doing things that you’ve become habituated to doing. Always look out for what method you’ve become comfortable practising, and then start challenging it.


The article covered information on what lateral thinking is, and a detailed step-by-step explanation of how to improve lateral thinking. It is important to remember that later thinking is a skill, and like all skills, practising it is important to better it. Learning to think laterally is a great investment in yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions: How to Improve Lateral Thinking?

Can you train your brain to think laterally?

Yes, lateral thinking can be taught. However, it takes time to train your brain for the same and does not happen overnight. Along with being curious and questioning existing knowledge structures, you can fasten the process by playing puzzles and solving brain teasers.

What are the characteristics of lateral thinkers?

Lateral thinkers address problems by coming up with solutions that cannot otherwise be reached through deductive or logical means. They have the ability to come up with original answers to challenging questions, they are more open-minded, and like to challenge their existing thinking pathways.

What is the opposite of lateral thinking?

The opposite of lateral thinking is vertical thinking, also known as logical thinking. It involves one being selective, sequential, and analytical while solving problems, and not examining any creative pathways.

Lateral thinking is suitable for which jobs?

Lateral thinking skills are usually best used for careers that require creativity. These can include marketing, advertising, writing, graphic designing, teaching, designing games, architecture, as well as public relations.

Can critical thinking be learned?

Even though it is difficult, critical thinking can be taught as well as learning. It is learned through processes of self-improvement and deliberate practice. It can take a long time to master the art of critical thinking.


De Bono, E., & Zimbalist, E. (1970). Lateral thinking (pp. 1-32). London: Penguin.

De Bono, E. (1986). De Bono’s thinking course.

De Bono, E. (1995). Serious creativity. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 18(5), 12.