Lateral Thinking: How to Actually Think Outside the Box and Ignite Your Team’s Innovation

Lateral thinking is an underrated process for disrupting assumptions and getting people to look at things from a brand new perspective–which can be highly beneficial for spurring creativity and originality.

When we want to come up with a new idea or create something new–a new product, a story, a design, etc.–we tend to focus on “originality” and the “creative spark”. New ideas fall in front of us like Isaac Newton’s infamous apple–we can’t control when and where it will happen, and it’s simply a matter of genius mixed with inspiration that the right idea finds the right person.

But what if this image of idea generation is wrong? What if there is more that goes on in the background before that can make you more receptive to creating new ideas? And what if there were a way of thinking that could prepare you to make the connections and associations necessary for innovation. 

This is what lateral thinking is all about. Lateral thinking means looking at problems or concepts in a slightly different way from the familiar logical and sequential framework that most people are taught to use. 

Lateral thinking therefore has a lot of applications when it comes to trying to think in new ways. Teams can definitely benefit from learning the principles of lateral thinking and incorporating them into the way that teams go about brainstorming and coming up with novel ideas. 

The important point to make is that lateral thinking can create the proper background necessary for thinking of ideas in the first place. Without learning to open your eyes to different possibilities, it will be very hard to find them. That’s why it’s important to train your team to think laterally as well as sequentially.

So in the following post, we’ll go into deeper detail about what lateral thinking actually is, and give you some ways to improve lateral thinking on your team.

What is lateral thinking?

In trying to define what lateral thinking is, it can be useful to first define its opposite–that is, vertical thinking. This is the way that we solve problems most of the time. We have a problem, which we look at using a set of constraints and assumptions. We then look for an answer or solution that directly addresses those problems and fits within the constraints and assumptions that we created. In other words, all of our thinking converges around the problem itself as we work to solve it. 

These constraints and assumptions though, while helping us to logically consider the problem and frame it, are what shape the proverbial “box” that we tend to focus on. Thinking outside the box, and generating creative ideas, thus means trying to think outside of the constraints and assumptions that we use to shape the problem.

This is what lateral thinking, sometimes called “divergent” or “disruptive” thinking, really is all about. Instead of having our way of thinking converge on the problem, letting it dictate how we see the situation, lateral thinking allows our thoughts to radiate out from the problem, turning the problem into merely a starting point. When we use lateral thinking, we engage with our ability to challenge our assumptions and criterion for solving problems. We break our previously held notions, or we look beyond the confines of the frames we use to define a problem and its possible solutions.

By doing this, we are able to explore more options and see solutions that we might not have been aware of (or let ourselves be aware of) previously. And if we practice this way of thinking regularly, we can actually change our perspective and reframe how we look for sources of inspiration and creativity. In other words, we will naturally be more open to creative ideas because we aren’t as stuck in our previously held notions.

Lateral thinking: Some examples

Let’s look at a few riddles to illustrate how lateral thinking works in practice (answers are at the end of this article).

Question 1: A baby falls out of a window of a 20-storey building, yet survives. How?

Question 2: A man is sentenced to death and has to choose between three options for his punishment. Option one is a room with a firing squad, guns loaded. Option two is a room with a blazing fire. Option three is a room full of tigers who haven’t eaten for six months. Which option should he pick?

Question 3: A man opened a door, screamed, and died a few minutes later. No gunshots were found in the area. What happened to the man?

–Warning: spoilers ahead–

The above are good examples of how lateral thinking tends to work. In all three, assumptions are challenged. Probably as soon as you read the questions the first time, you automatically registered a number of assumptions in your brain.

For example, in the first question, you probably assumed that falling out of a 20-storey building means falling from one of the top floors. This is because we’ve probably read so many headlines or stories where that happens (no one writes or talks about falling out of a ground-floor window).

We also take assumptions from the question itself and how we feel we’re “meant” to understand it. When you read the second question, most likely you assumed that all three choices were “meant” to be dangerous, based on the language of the question and what the other two options were. But that in turn makes you blind to recognizing the obvious inconsistency in the last option.

Lateral thinking also engages in a bit of imaginative thinking, too. In fact, lateral thinking has been linked to the way little kids play, imagining situations, connections and questions that might not be so clear or obvious to adults because of our focus on vertical thinking skills. 

The third question illustrates this point. You might roll your eyes when you look at the solution because it seems so obvious in hindsight. But getting to that answer requires a bit of imagination and really leaning into the (absurd on its face) question: in what way would die from opening a door? But letting yourself ask that absurd question then raises different imaginative possibilities that you might have overlooked. 

Steps teams should take to try to engage their lateral thinking skills 

Now that we’ve explained what lateral thinking is, it should be becoming more clear how it can be useful on your team. But getting to a place of using lateral thinking skills on a regular basis can be difficult. A lot of society, especially work environments, are based around principles of vertical thinking.

But there are some ways that you can begin to introduce the concept of lateral thinking on your team. By discussing some of the obvious notions that you hold and may be taking for granted, you can begin to discover the contours of your thinking, and expand beyond it. Here are some ways to do this.  

1. Understand your assumptions

When you’re discussing something at a meeting, brainstorming new options, or coming up with a new idea, really take a step back and notice the assumptions that you are using. You usually catch assumptions because they appear as “should” or “need” statements. “We should be using this model in our approach”, “We need to come up with an idea to solve x“, “We need to focus on y“, etc. 

Ask yourselves why you really need to or should do these things. Doing so will help uncover some of the assumptions that you’re making about your team or project. At the very least, it will help clarify which issues you really need to focus on. But this process may also help you come up with new ideas and connections as well. 

2. Question your conditions

Another way to explore the borders of your thinking is to look at what conditions you are imposing on problems. You can often catch these conditions because they are usually framed as “if…then” statements. “If we engage a certain number of followers, then we can sell more products”, “If we allocate more time and resources to x then we can achieve y“. 

Sometimes investigating these conditions leads to the discovery that the two are not connected, or that you can solve the problem in a different way by reframing the condition,getting rid of it  or coming up with a new one. Conditions can sometimes block our creative thinking by putting blinders on our ability to see the whole problem and other options for solving it, so at least questioning these conditions helps break the hold that they have over our thinking.  

3. Lean into your imagination 

Notice how it doesn’t say “use your imagination”. We all use our imagination, everyday, all the time. The problem is often that we don’t follow through with it. We get an idea but immediately think it’s bad or won’t work (based on our assumptions and conditions). 

So let’s lean into our imagination and treat our ideas as worthy, no matter how absurd. When we get an idea, instead of rejecting it, think it through a bit. Roll it over in your brain, maybe outline it or brainstorm it with some trusted coworkers or friends. Think about “what would happen if…?” In other words, play with your ideas and see where they take you.  

4. Push your boundaries      

Make it a point to push your boundaries more and practice doing so on a more regular basis. Instead of settling on the first good idea that comes up at a meeting, take the time to think of a few more. Instead of going with a comfortable, safe option, poke around a bit and brainstorm what would happen if you went with the more risky option.

This is possibly more of an issue with willpower than anything else. It does take a bit of bravery to engage with different or even uncomfortable ideas. But it’s worth it in the end since it engages your lateral thinking skills, which will end up helping you break out of your regular mode of thinking into a more creative mental space. 

Some activities to help your team improve their lateral thinking skills

1) Nouns and Verbs

This was originally a creative writing exercise, but it fits very well with lateral thinking. Have each participant fold a sheet of paper in half. On the left side of the sheet, write down ten nouns. Any ten. Then, on the back of the right side of the sheet, think of an occupation and list ten verbs that go with it (e.g. a cook: saute, chop, broil, bake, mince, etc.). 

Now combine each noun with a verb and create a sentence. This should be conceptually a little hard, since the noun and verb won’t be related directly. Once the participants are done, have them share their sentences with the group or in pairs (or have them share their favorite sentence if you’re pressed for time). This activity gets team members to think in different ways and make associations between seemingly unrelated things. 

2) Bad Idea Brainstorm 

Bad Idea Brainstorm gets team members to use lateral thinking skills by having them lean into their imagination and think through their “bad ideas”. This activity is pretty simple. At your next brainstorm session, instead of asking for the best ideas, ask your team members to come up with the worst ideas they can imagine (if you don’t have anything to brainstorm, come up with a fake situation that is relevant to your team and get their worst ideas about the hypothetical problem).

This activity is not only funny and good at building a sense of camaraderie on your team, but it also gets team members to think outside the box. Really get them to outline and walk through their bad ideas too, asking for details and follow up information. Who knows, you may end up with a winning idea that could just work?

3) Puzzle-Based Team Building Activities 

Puzzles are known to be great lateral thinking builders, since they are often based around looking at something in a slightly different way. When combined with team building activities though, puzzles act as ways to strengthen thinking skills across the whole team, and to develop team working skills that can then implement new ideas.

Invite Japan has a whole range of puzzle-based team building activities, including indoor programs, outdoor scavenger hunts, and online games, all of which challenge teams to think in different ways and combine their different perspectives in order to succeed together. Doing these types of activities regularly will also help to strengthen that later thinking muscle and make your team more creative as a result. 

(Answer 1) The window was on the ground floor.

(Answer 2) The room with the six tigers. If they haven’t eaten for six months, they’re dead.

(Answer 3) The man was on an airplane. He opened the door of the cabin while the plane was in flight and fell to his death.      

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