Techniques for Innovation: Lateral Thinking



Lateral thinking is a creative approach to problem solving that is not limited by reason or scientific understanding.  The term lateral thinking was introduced by Dr. Edward de Bono in his book New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking.


A way of thinking that seeks a solution to an intractable problem through unorthodox methods or elements that would normally be ignored by logical thinking. Edward de Bono divides thinking into two methods. He calls one ‘vertical thinking’ that is, using the processes of logic, the traditional historical method. He calls the other ‘lateral thinking’, which involves disrupting an apparent sequence and arriving at the solution from another angle.

Developing breakthrough ideas does not have to be the result of luck or a shotgun effort. Edward de Bono’s proven methods provide a deliberate, systematic process that will result in innovative thinking. Creative thinking is not a talent, it is a skill that can be learnt. It empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities which improves teamwork, productivity and where appropriate – profit. Today, better quality and better service are essential, but they are not enough. Creativity and innovation are the only engines that will drive lasting, global success.

Our minds are trained to find typical and predictable solutions to problems. You can master the the tools for innovative thinking. Lateral thinking will also help you with strategic planning and thinking outside the box of everyday issues.

* – Taken from the website


The Technique

Lateral thinking applies a series of tools:

  1. Alternatives

Traditional innovation techniques look for alternative solutions to current technology.  Lateral thinking generates a second iteration of alternative solutions by improving on the concepts behind conventional alternative solutions.

Example – Disposable Razors

The most common solution to blunting razor blades is wear resistant tungsten carbide blades or diamond tipped tungsten carbide blades.  Given the propensity towards more and more blades in modern razors, this can be expensive.

I have a knife sharpener to sharpen my knife when it begins to blunt, why can’t there be a sharpener that gets between the blades of a razor to sharpen blunt blades?

  1. Focus

Traditional innovation focuses on iterative improvements to known problems or simply improving on components of existing technology.

Lateral thinking applies focus to components which are traditionally overlooked or technology where there is no existing need.

Example – Retinal examination of the eye: The story of Optos

Optos was founded and incorporated in 1992 by Douglas Anderson after his then five-year-old son went blind in one eye when a retinal detachment was detected too late. Although his son was having regular eye exams, routine exams were uncomfortable, especially for a child, which made it impossible for the doctor to conduct a complete exam and view the entire retina. Anderson set out to commercialize a patient-friendly retinal image product that encompassed a digital widefield image of the retina in a single capture.

Sceptics originally said “it is impossible and not needed anyway” right through the 15 year innovation and entrepreneurial processes.

Optos now have 3000 users and over 13 million patients have benefited from this new type of eye exam.

  1. Challenge

This technique looks at the current way of working and looks for alternatives.

Example – University lectures

Instead of students having to turn up to lectures at a specific time and location, they could watch from the comfort of their own home.

This could be real-time where they need to sign in and have a video cam to demonstrate their attendance or they can watch at their convenience.

  1. Random Words

This is a powerful lateral thinking technique that applies random words or images to the problem or existing alternative solutions to the problem.

Example -  shoe laces

Random word – baby

Babies don’t like to wear shoes so shoe laces are not needed as they prefer bare feet.

Toe shoes are designed around the shape of our feet and the closest thing on the market to the bare feet babies prefer.

Babies are happy to wear socks, but they often fall off due the size and shape of baby feet. Sock-ons are made from soft stretchy material and designed to fit over socks around the ankle and the arch of the foot to keep the sock in place.

What if we combined a toe shoe and a sock-on  to create an airy comfortable shoe that allowed the toes of our shoe to bend so that the wearer can move their toes in a variety of directions.

Take an unconventional approach to solving problems by applying lateral thinking to solving problems to see what new innovations you create.

  1. Provocation & Movement

Provocation is a technique based around making unsubstantiated or unsupported statements.

Everybody has similar reservations to the provocative statement, which can be overlooked as movement is made to consider how that provocative statement can be realised.

Example – Power should be free

Conventional sources of power are provided by energy companies and we pay for them.

There are some existing technologies that generate power if you purchase the equipment, such as wind turbines or dynamos.

Why can’t some of the energy I use hitting the keys of my laptop writing this article be recovered and used to power my laptop?

Can energy reserves in my body be used to power my television or dvd player so that being a couch potato becomes exercise?

  1. Harvesting Entry

Applying the techniques of lateral thinking produces a diverse range of eclectic ideas.

These need to be retained and categorised so that ideas that have potential and ideas that have synergy with other ideas can be appropriately managed so that the lateral skills session is productive.

  1. Treatment of Ideas

Lateral thinking should produce ideas that are well outside your comfort zone.

In these circumstances, when you have developed what you believe to be potentially good ideas, but they are outside of your area of expertise, you can search the Smart Idea Store database to find innovation support agencies and experts that can help you effectively evaluate these ideas and determine their potential.

Suggestions for the next step:

Evaluate your ideas



Smart Idea Store