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How to Apply Lateral Thinking to Your Creative Work

How to Apply Lateral Thinking to Your Creative Work
Published September 10, 2014 by Shane Snow
Pretend that you’re trapped in a magical room with only two exits. Through the first exit is a room made from a giant magnifying glass, and the blazing hot sun will fry you to death. Through the second door is a room with a fire-breathing dragon. Which do you go through?

The first door, of course. Simply wait until the sun goes down. 

The answer to this puzzle is an example of what psychologists call “lateral thinking.” The most elegant solution presents itself when you approach the problem sideways, rather than answering it head-on. Though the question is presented as a binary choice—one option or the other—when you disregard the assumption that you must act immediately, the “best” answer becomes obvious. 

Like our magical room, marketers have a bad habit of charring great terms to death. In business, we tend to tout “creativity” and “innovation” and “thinking outside the box” until they mean nothing. However, when you unwrap all of its buzzwords and euphemisms, history shows that creative breakthroughs all have one thing in common: they occur when people employ lateral thinking.

“We assume certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries,” explains Edward de Bono, who coined the term in 1967. “Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces.” It’s the art of reframing questions, attacking problems sideways. They way a computer hacker or, say, MacGyver would think.

Breakthroughs, by very definition, only occur when assumptions are broken. In creative fields, this often happens when people break rules that aren’t actually rules at all, but rather simply conventions. Pablo Picasso changed art forever by smashing the “rules” of perspective, color, proportion. His Cubism took hold in Paris faster than Van Gogh’s impressionism—and any other new form, for that matter. Apple turned the tech world on its head by radically simplifying music and mice when everyone else equated more buttons and more megabytes and more jargon with better. When we look at great inventions and solutions to problems throughout history—the kinds that make what came before instantly obsolete—we see this pattern again and again.

Breakthroughs, by very definition, only occur when assumptions are broken.

The trouble for most of us is that even if we’re “creative,” our default setting is “linear thinking.” But that default can be overridden. Here are five steps to train yourself to think a little more laterally with any challenge:

1) List the assumptions

When confronted with a question (problem, challenge, etc.), write out the assumptions inherent to the question. In the case of the puzzle above, the list might include the following:

  • You want to get out of the room
  • You have to choose one of the two options
  • You have to do something now
  • Room One will kill you no matter what (or so we think!)
  • Room Two will kill you no matter what

2) Verbalize the convention

Next, ask yourself the question, “How would a typical person approach this problem?” Map out the obvious, straightforward solutions. Then ask yourself, “What if I couldn’t go this route?” 

3) Question the question

Ask yourself, “What if I could rewrite the question?” Rearrange the pieces, as de Bono suggests, to form a new scenario. In the trapped room scenario, instead of, “Which do you go through?” you might rewrite the question to ask, “Will you go through one of them?” or “Will these really kill you?” or “Do you even need to go through one of them?” 

4) Start backwards

Often the route to solving a problem is revealed when you start with the solution first, and try to work backward. For example, asking the question, “How would I get into a trapped room if it were adjoined by a room made out of a magnifying glass?” By reframing the challenge in this way, you’ll notice that I stripped away the details that cause you to overthink the answer to the trapped room example. But in a real-life scenario, this question might sound more like, “How could we renewably generate 10 gigajoules of electricity?” rather than “How could we make the city more energy efficient?”—a vague question that often results in straightforward, but ineffective answers like, “Get people to turn off their lights more.” 

5) Change perspective

Finally, one of the reasons innovation often happens when outsiders enter a new industry, or when disparate groups bump into one another, is because fresh perspective are convention-ignorant. To kickstart lateral thinking, you might do well to pretend you were someone else trying to solve the problem. Say, if you were a magician, or a scientist, or a track and field star—how would they escape from the fire room? Or how would the fire-breathing dragon answer this question? Etc.


Before the Earth was a sphere, it was flat. Before it revolved around the sun, the universe revolved around it. Before Einstein’s relativity we had only Newton’s gravity. With every such advance we broke assumptions that were so ingrained that most people didn’t think to question them. And writing the new paradigms often took more work than one might expect—even though the solutions themselves often proved simple.

In our modern work culture, we generally cling to two conventions when solving problems: 1) put your head down and work relentlessly until fortune strikes; and 2) spend as little effort as possible. The problem with each of these philosophies is actually somewhat lazy. Mental work is more difficult than rote physical work, though we often fool ourselves into thinking that because you can see the latter, it’s just as or more valuable. Conversely, no one ever changed the world by cutting corners. It’s the combination of the two, hard work and mental flexibility, that leads to revolutions.

In other words: though they say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, if there are enough people standing in that line—following the conventional wisdom—the fastest path between those two points might involve a few steps sideways. 

[Ed. note: this post is inspired by Shane's book Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, available on Amazon now.]

How about you?

How have you applied lateral thinking?

More about Shane Snow

Shane Snow is a journalist, cofounder of Contently, and author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.

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