What Is Lateral Thinking? (With Interview Preparation Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 26, 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.

Companies often look to employ people who approach conventional problems in unique ways. The ability to think laterally can help you explore innovative solutions that you might have overlooked if approached with logical thinking. Understanding how to improve your creative thinking skills and showcase these skills in an interview can help with your job search. In this article, we explore the history of lateral thinking, explain how it differs from vertical thinking, and offer tips on how to further develop these skills.

What is lateral thinking?

Dr. Edward de Bono, a world-renowned writer, and philosopher, originally invented the concept of lateral thinking as a creative problem-solving strategy to oppose conventional or vertical thinking. When you think laterally, you can approach a situation from different and sometimes unexpected angles, solving problems with innovative solutions. Thinking laterally is a useful skill to develop, as it usually requires you to investigate a problem outside of conventional thought processes.

Hiring managers might assess a candidate's ability to think laterally in an interview, as these individuals may offer a different perspective or a creative solution to a recurring problem. For example, an interviewer may ask you how you might solve a minor conflict with a colleague. The obvious answer may be to elevate the problem and speak to a manager or file a complaint with human resources. You can showcase your creative thinking abilities by suggesting you take the colleague out for coffee to connect on a personal level to resolve the ongoing conflict.

How does it differ from vertical thinking?

Vertical thinking is a sequence of direct and logical steps that you might use to solve a problem, whereas lateral thinking uses an indirect or creative approach instead. Lateral thought is more flexible and often considers the problem from several different perspectives before determining a solution. For example, if an organization was looking to improve employee morale in the workplace, a vertical thinking solution might be to add free snacks and beverages in the kitchen area. If you use a lateral approach, you might suggest a stronger work-life balance, remote work options, or increased social and team engagement activities.

Read more: What Is a Logical Thinker? (With Definition and Examples)

Ways to develop your lateral thinking skills

There are many exercises available to help you develop your lateral or creative thinking skills. While some people think laterally naturally, there are many techniques that can help you improve the way you approach problems to find solutions. Here are some thought exercises to help improve your creative thinking abilities:

Reverse thinking

This method of creative thinking involves analyzing what the obvious solution to a problem might be and then doing or exploring the opposite. By asking yourself what might happen if you choose an alternate path, you can create an ideal scenario for novel thinking. Reverse thinking might also refer to starting from the end of your problem and working backward to discover workable solutions. This can be especially helpful if you get stuck trying to dissect a problem and want to approach it from another angle or perspective.

Rolestorming

Rolestorming is a brainstorming technique that encourages you to ask what someone else might do in the same scenario. You can consider what your manager or colleagues might do, or go broader and contemplate what a famous or made-up person might do in similar circumstances. For example, if you have a developed marketing persona for a product, you might question what choices the person might make when faced with purchasing decisions to help decide on a marketing strategy. When rolestorming, you might find that the more removed the person is from the situation, the more valuable their insights can be.

Random entry idea

When brainstorming, it's important to remain open to unexpected ideas or thoughts that might help trigger further solutions. While vertical thinking often requires intense focus on the process or idea, thinking laterally encourages you to look in unusual places to awaken your imagination. For example, you might choose a random word from the dictionary and explore ways you might include that word or idea to come up with a creative solution. While this might not always produce a complete result, the exercise might help you use your imagination, preparing your mind for tackling your initial problem creatively.

Mind mapping

Mind maps are a data visualization tool you can use to explore a wide range of solutions to a problem. It's helpful if you're more visually inclined or if you have a lot of data to organize. You can create a mind map by placing the problem in the middle of the map and adding potential solutions around it. For example, you might place your problem of increasing sales team motivation and include categories of incentives, training opportunities, and commission scales around it. If any idea links to another, you can connect them with a line to visualize the relationship.

Related: A Guide on How to Make a Concept Map and When to Use It

Empathy mapping

Similar to mind mapping, empathy mapping is a visualization tool often used to explore emotional responses to a plan or scenario. For example, a manager might use an empathy map to assess their team's reaction to a new workflow or technological application. This method may be helpful when exploring various emotional responses to a proposed solution and involves empathizing with the user's feelings to better understand their perspective or reaction to plan accordingly.

Read more: 7 Steps to Improve Your Creative Thinking Skills

The six thinking hats of problem-solving

Dr. Edward de Bono created the six thinking hats approach as a role-playing guide to creative problem-solving. In this exercise, you're encouraged to explore six different perspectives of the same problem to come to a final creative solution. By looking at the situation from unique angles, you may be able to broaden your understanding of the problem and brainstorm various conclusions aside from the most obvious. The following list outlines the six different hats and the perspectives they represent within the framework of this technique:

  • Blue hat: Often referred to as the conductor's hat, this perspective represents the high-level overview of the situation and uses a sense of structured thinking to come to a solution.

  • Green hat: Called the creative hat, this perspective explores creative, new, and unexpected ideas as a solution to the problem through brainstorming or associative thinking.

  • Red hat: The feelings hat represents the emotional response to a situation that might explore instincts, opinions, subjective feelings, or perceptions.

  • Yellow hat: Known as the optimist's hat, the yellow hat explores best-case scenarios by looking at the issues in the most flattering way.

  • Black hat: The judge's hat can be one of the most powerful, as it can approach questions with a critical and skeptical judgment to identify risks and potential problems.

  • White hat: Called the factual hat, this explores the facts of a situation by gathering and assessing information, knowledge, insights, and any other missing information.

Why is lateral thinking important?

Thinking laterally can have many benefits for employees at all levels of an organization. It often allows decision-makers to abandon any past biases or conventional ways of approaching a problem and explore innovative solutions instead. Further, it can also allow you to explore more possibilities, develop new strategies, and challenge assumptions. Here are some additional personal benefits of thinking laterally:

  • Increased creativity

  • Stronger interpersonal skills

  • Greater open-mindedness

  • Improved teamwork abilities

  • Better at making unique observations

Related: Improve Your Creativity Skills to Highlight on Your Resume

Ways you can show your creative thinking skills in an interview

Thinking laterally is a useful skill for many jobs in a variety of industries, and can be especially helpful for careers in advertising, marketing, and business development. For this reason, some hiring managers might try to identify if you have creative thinking abilities in your interview answers. For example, they might ask how you might handle a customer complaint when you knew the customer was wrong, and look for signs of creative problem-solving in your answer.

These types of questions can allow you to showcase your ability to come up with a unique solution to a challenge you might not have experienced before. If you expect to answer these types of questions in an interview, you can prepare by considering creative solutions to the following scenarios:

  • Difficult customer at work

  • Challenging relationship with a colleague or manager

  • Team conflict that needed to be resolved

  • Deadline that you weren't able to meet

  • Supplier that delivered damaged goods and isn't responding to your calls

Related: 10 Strategic Interview Questions to Ask Candidates

Lateral thought examples

Creative thinking encourages you to deliberately ignore the straightforward answer to problems and propose creative alternatives. Working through word riddles or puzzles can help you develop your lateral or creative thinking skills. Here are some examples that show how creative thinking works:

Example 1

Three people enter a room but only two walkout. The room is empty. Where is the third person?

Example answer: The third person was a baby and crawled out.

Example 2

You're alone in a dark room with only one match, an oil lamp, and a candle. Which do you light first?

Example answer: The other items can only be lit by first lighting the match.

Example 3

Every two weeks, a woman sits in her office and writes two words on 30 sheets of paper. Why does she do this?

Example answer: The woman is doing payroll for 30 employees and is signing her name on their cheques.

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