To think laterally is to make an individual look at something from a different perspective. Lateral thinking is an attitude of the mind to generating new ideas and solving problems, supported by unconventional thinking techniques. Its Thinking that seeks new ways of looking at a problem rather than proceeding by logical steps. To do this first you must :

1- Challenge your assumptions
2- Ask powerful Questions
3- Take  a different view lets look at each of these in more detail and see examples to clarify more:


1-  Challenge your assumptions

The assumptions we accumulate are like walls that restrict our view of what is possible. We build these walls as we gather our ground-rules,assumptions and experiences and hear those of other people. Instead of seeing freely in a 360-degree circle we limit our view to a narrow vista.


Examples for Challenging Assumptions:

- Splitting the Atom:The atom was originally defined as the smallest indivisible unit of matter. The implication was that an atom could never be subdivided. This assumption made it difficult for scientists to conceive of splitting the atom.

-Marconi’s  Radio Waves across the Atlantic: Guglielmo Marconi, came to England to test his theory that radio waves could be transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean. The experts all scoffed at the idea. It was known that radio waves travelled in straight lines, and that the Earth was a giant sphere, so the experts quite reasonably assumed that a radio signal sent flat would travel on a tangent out into everlasting space. Marconi persisted with his madcap experiment, and set up his transmitter in Cornwall and his receiver in Newfoundland. To the world’s amazement he succeeded in sending a radio signal across the Atlantic.

-Microsoft’s domination by mid 1990s: In the 1990s Microsoft dominated the PC application software market. In the late 1980s the leading spreadsheet was Lotus 1-2-3, the leading database dBASE III from Ashton-Tate, the leading word processor was WordPerfect and the leading presentation product was Harvard Graphics. By the mid-1990s these had all been replaced by Microsoft products – Excel, Access, Word and PowerPoint. Microsoft had an immensely strong market position with a 90 per cent share of the desktop applications market and it dominated the distribution, reseller and retail channels. Anyone trying to introduce a competing product through the conventional channels would have been turned away. But one small company did find a way to bring a new product to market.

- Netscape giving its browser free and beating Microsoft for some years: Netscape ignored the conventional route to market, it gave away its browser, Netscape Navigator, over the internet and charged for upgrades and professional versions. This fresh approach worked and it became the leader in the browser market. It was as though the distribution channels had been Microsoft’s Maginot line and the internet allowed Netscape to outflank the defense and reach the market directly. It took a little while for Microsoft to realize the threat, but once it did, it reacted quickly. Microsoft made its own browser, Internet Explorer, freely available over the internet, then bundled it free with the Windows operating system. Netscape lost its lead role in the browser market and became an internet portal and open software supplier. However, there was another twist when the US Justice Department judged that Microsoft’s action in bundling its browser with the Windows operating system was an unfair practice.


Two Important Lessons from the last examples:

1- when you are competing with a strong market leader you should not necessarily attack head on, but try to change the rules of the game: for example by approaching the customer from a new direction.

2- Similarly if you are a market leader, it is dangerous to assume that there are strong barriers to entry which will protect you. An innovative smaller company is probably plotting a surprise attack right now!



■ Recognize that you and everyone else have ingrained assumptions about every situation.

■ Ask plenty of basic questions in order to discover and challenge those assumptions.

■ Pretend you are a complete outsider and ask questions like ‘Why do we do it this way at all?’

■ Reduce a situation to its simplest components in order to take it out of your environment.

■Restate a problem in different terms.

■ Consider what the experts and professionals advise and then consider doing the opposite.

Always keep in mind the fact that making decisions based on assumptions about what worked or did not work before limits you to a restricted choice and can blind you to better solutions. See also the famous 8 blocks to creative thinking.


2-  Asking powerful Questions

The ability to ask intelligent powerful questions is essential when you want to challenge the status quo , types of Lateral questions to ask are :

■ Are we asking the right question?

■ Why do we need to solve this problem?

■ Why do we do things this way at all?

■ How can we restate the problem?

■ What if we reversed the problem?

■ Who would benefit and who would lose if we solved this problem?

■ What are the rules of our business and what would happen if we broke those rules? ■ What are we assuming about this situation?

■ What would happen if we challenged those assumptions?

■ Can we draw a diagram or picture of the problem?

■ Can we model the problem?

■ How would someone from another planet solve this problem?

■ If we had unlimited money and resources how would we solve this problem?

■ How would someone in a completely different line of business solve this problem?

■ How can we look at this in a different way?

 Consider this example asking the tough questions which is an example of lateral leadership in action  regarding Intel’s move from memory chips into the higher added-value business of designing and making processor chips to escape Japanese competition

In 1985 Intel’s main business was making memory chips, but fierce competition from Japan was turning memory into a commodity with tiny margins. Intel’s founders, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, sat down and asked themselves some tough questions. ‘If we were kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO,’ Grove asked, ‘what do you think he would do?’ ‘Get out of the memory chip business’ was Moore’s answer. From that insight came the plan to move from memory chips into the higher added-value business of designing and making processor chips (Charan and Useem, 2002: 41). In order to help them think like a new team that had just been appointed, Grove and Moore fired themselves in a virtual sense. They walked out of the building in their old personas and walked back in thinking of themselves as newly appointed to the jobs. It was by asking this kind of question and approaching the problem afresh that Grove and Moore could make the transition that would transform the business. That is lateral leadership in action. 


Tips for Asking powerful Questions

Start with open-ended questions that elicit a wide range of answers rather than closed questions, which can be answered in a simple yes or no. So instead of ‘Is our marketing generating enough leads?’ (answer – no) It is better to ask, ‘How can we generate twice as many leads?’

It is often useful to start with challenging ‘How’ questions, such as:

■ How can we create a new product that delivers twice the customer value?
■ How can we cut our inventories in half?
■ How can we recruit the best staff?
■ How can we reach new prospects?
■ How can we cut our cost base by 25 percent?
■ How can we cut waiting times in half?

For more about asking questions, we suggest you read our Asking questions article


3 - Look at things differently

The following are two great examples of having the capacity to stop, take a step back and look at things differently. In 1968 the audience at the Olympic Games in Mexico City was amazed to see a young man take the high jump with his back to the bar. All the other competitors used the time-honoured Western Roll approach of jumping with their face and stomach brushing the bar.

The time was ripe for a young American, Dick Fosbury, to ask a fundamental question: ‘Is there a better way to perform a high jump?’ He experimented and found that there was. He won the gold medal and transformed the sport. He questioned the prevailing assumptions and approached the problem from a new and lateral direction. His was truly a leap of the imagination.

Henry Ford took a different view to assembling motor cars.Traditionally the car would be assembled in one place, with different workers coming along to fit the engine, the gearbox, the dashboard, the brakes and so on. He asked, ‘What would happen if instead of the workers moving to the car, the car moved to the workers?’ His radical idea was the car assembly line. It enabled the standardized mass production of cars at a much lower overall cost.

Creating Visual Links

A good way to reframe a problem is to draw the key term and as many visual links as you think relevant. This helps to structure and restructure your thoughts. It is sometimes called visual brainstorming. Tony Buzan developed this idea into a concept called mind mapping (Buzan, 1993). It works well for individuals and can be used in groups.

In a simple form it works like this. In the centre of a large piece of paper write the key objective and draw an oval around it. Then write the key attributes of the issue on branches leading out from the oval.

Each branch will trigger other branches and sub-branches until a visual map is laid out with all your main thoughts shown and linked.

Then you can use a highlighting pen to underline key points and to link related points from different branches. In this way you can visually see relations and new connections and combinations of your ideas.

Tips for adopting a different point view:

■ Force yourself to approach the problem from a fresh direction.

■ Put yourself in the shoes of a customer, or the product itself or a Martian!

■ Reframe the problem – describe it in different words.

■ Make a visual representation of the issue with a drawing or with Visual Links.

■ Discuss your situation with friends in very different walks of life.

■ Start with a random object or word and force an association with the problem.


For more on creativity, check out our instant download training pacakge: Creative Problem Solving and Decision Making.