What is lateral thinking? Definition, characteristics, elements, methods, application, lateral thinking in marketing and examples

We explain what lateral thinking is, the elements that compose it and its methods, history, characteristics and lateral thinking in marketing. Also, some simple examples.

What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking is known as a form of mental reasoning that allows the resolution of problems through the application of imaginative or creative solutions.

The term was first used in 1967, in the book by Edward de Bono New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking , as the name of a thought pattern that is governed by paths other than those employed by traditional logical reasoning (then called “Vertical thinking”), thus giving new perspectives to any situation.

Must Read: What is scientific thinking?

Since then, this term has become popular in the fields of individual and social psychology , as a tool to encourage thinking outside the usual or expected patterns.

Its central idea can be summed up in that, when evaluating the premises of any problem, we generally look for some natural or habitual pattern of thought to find a solution. Thus we arrive at the same result over and over again.

Lateral thinking, then, aspires to break these patterns and look for alternative, different paths that lead to the resolution of the problem. It is what the English speakers call Think outside the box (“think outside the box”).

It can serve you: What is systems thinking?

In this way, the theory of lateral thinking proposes that by applying this model of thought to our daily dilemmas, we could trigger change and find novel, highly creative responses to dilemmas that we had been solving in a habitual way.

To do this, we would require training in this type of reasoning, which usually involves facing a series of riddles very similar to the koan of the Zen tradition.

Characteristics of lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is based on the distancing of traditionally traveled mental paths . That is, it requires the break with the expected and the commitment to creativity and innovative perspectives.

In that sense, it goes to methods and techniques that are not normally associated with organized thinking, such as provocations, which are a kind of mental “games” intended to find alternative ways of reasoning. Some provocations can be dynamic escapes, random words, analogies, exaggerations or fractionations of the problem.

In any case, lateral thinking aspires to be a problem-solving technique, but at the same time a path towards a different, more flexible logic , capable of adapting to each situation it faces and not always resorting to the same toolbox. to face different problems from each other.

See Also: What is mathematical thinking?

Elements of lateral thinking

Lateral thinking is based on four basic or fundamental elements:

  • The assumptions check . Something similar to what we commonly understand by “keeping an open mind”: distrust the immediate values, prejudices and previous reasoning that arise from the initial exposition of the premises of the problem, since they are common places, encapsulate thinking and prevent the creativity.
  • The formulation of the right questions . Lateral thinking suggests that, instead of focusing on the solution, we must first find the relevant questions, and thus know what kind of answer we need. This is often seen as an inverse and counterintuitive perspective: think about the question and not the answer.
  • The entrance of creativity . Change and creative perspectives are valued by lateral thinking, since by incorporating elements that normally do not seem part of the set, new areas can be illuminated, part of a new dynamic can be found or simply provide a new approach or perspective.
  • The logical thinking . Logical deduction, rigor of thinking and the ability to interpret are the active core of lateral thinking, to which all creative perspectives or alternative reasoning should lead.

Must Read: What is creative thinking?

Methods of lateral thinking

Fractionating ideas.
Techniques carried out for the practice of lateral thinking:


Dr. De Bono developed various types of provocations, here we will only touch on three of these, the most used.

Random word

It involves introducing a word at random (entry point), then generating a word that is related to it, and so on, repeating this last step. Every time the word is changed, an attempt will be made to link it to the problem for which a solution is being sought, generating possible ideas.


In this case, he or the objects involved in the problem are examined and a characteristic of the problem is denied or canceled. From this new environment, this new situation generated, ideas are sought with the usual tools.

Stone on the road

Here the idea is to exaggerate, distort or modify in any way an entity in the problem environment (generally it is very useful to assume that a certain entity is as you want it to be, not as it really is).


  • The analogies are useful to compare sequences of ideas that are demarcated ideas that are rational or critical. This increases the speed of creating ideas.
  • Get away from marked stereotypes , do not pigeonhole yourself only in an idea, look for different options no matter how eccentric they may seem.
  • A problem may be represented on the basis of analogies, which will be confusing at first but can be developed with due process of thought.

The investment method

In the inversion of problems, they are altered in their sense to see what their opposite is and see how they can be solved, see the problem and turn it to arrive at a favorable result. As for this method, it is not planned to solve the problem completely but taking the main idea by inverting it will serve to get closer to its solution. The investment method also tries to avoid the chain of ideas and closure, looking for the wildest solutions can sometimes work. See the problem from different points of view, not look at just one, have different angles of vision that allow us to have a clearer vision of the problem, not see it superficially.

Fractionation or division

The objective of fractionation is to break the solid unity of idea models, no matter how confusing it is at some points, but it is not about finding the parts or dividing the models into components, but about creating new parts and dividing the same components. Thus, by dividing the model, material is obtained for a restructuring of the models, an attempt is made to form a new order. The objective of fractionation is to avoid the effects of the inhibition implicit in the fixed models by means of their decomposition.

Suitable answers

According to De Bono, there are three ways in which thinking can be obstructed: Some information may be missing, there may be a mental block, or the obvious obstructs the vision of a better option. The third case would have a solution with lateral logic. Once the information is structured, it is difficult to transform it into something else. In this way, it seems obvious that the only way out is the one that offers the information already structured, so that if it answers the problem to be solved, it seems that there is no need to look for another.

Applications of lateral thinking

Lateral thinking can be used as a technique for generating ideas in many problem areas (compare creativity techniques ).

In the management process , lateral thinking is one of several established creativity techniques when it comes to finding unconventional or innovative solutions to operational problems.

One type of puzzle that requires lateral thinking is the lateral.

Lateral Thinking in Marketing

“Lateral marketing creates, vertical – chooses.”

Lateral marketing is a system of non-traditional methods of promoting goods and services that allows you to successfully fight competition; this is a side view of the problem, being as if outside the problem and the search for a non-standard solution to it. Allows you to develop new products, find new market niches and, ultimately, make a breakthrough in business. This technique shows how the inertial movement according to a given plan in vertical marketing is now time to dilute with something more modern. Lateral marketing is based on lateral thinking.

Lateral marketing is the opposite of vertical marketing. It implies a creative approach to finding new marketing ideas that is different from the vertical marketing (i.e. segmentation ) used. Vertical marketing works within a specific market, while lateral marketing, on the contrary, presents a product in a new context. Lateral marketing involves the search for new opportunities, focusing on non-standard approaches to communication, sales methods and methods, and identifying unaccounted for consumer desires.

The system was developed by Philip Kotler , considered one of the fathers of modern marketing, together with Fernando Trias de Bes, a Spanish economist, writer, and founder and partner of the consulting firm Salvetti & Llombart , whose clients include Pepsi & Co , Google , Nestle and other well-known international corporations. F. Kotler defines lateral marketing as a work process that, when applied to existing goods or services, results in innovative goods and services that cover the needs of target consumersor situations not currently covered, and thus is a process that offers a high chance of creating new categories or markets. [eight]

The benefits and necessity of using lateral thinking in modern marketing , as well as the prerequisites for the emergence of lateral marketing itself, F. Kotler and F. Trias de Bes described in their book “Lateral Marketing: The Technology of Searching for Revolutionary Ideas”.

Analyzing the evolution of markets, the development of competition, the shortening of the life cycle of products (goods, services), the revolution brought about by the transition to digital technologies and the decrease in the impact on consumer consciousness, the authors manage to identify the strengths and weaknesses of traditional marketing thinking.

Lateral Marketing Principles
  • Carry out analysis of consumer dissatisfaction and identify the object for changes: goods, services, means of communication.
  • Focus on the object of change that we intend to transform into something fundamentally different.
  • To produce “lateral displacement” is to interrupt the normal flow of logical thought, a widespread, ordinary chain of judgments, in order to create a stimulus that spurs our thinking creativity.
  • Create a new connection, a new connection, as a result of which the modified object will be transformed.
Lateral Marketing Objectives
  • identification of new needs that the product can satisfy if it is modified;
  • expansion of existing market segments by changing the characteristics and attributes of the product;
  • identification of additional needs from existing consumers;
  • analysis and identification of additional situations of using the product during its modification;
  • generating ideas for modifying products based on an existing product;
  • analysis of substitute goods for an attack on an existing product.

History of Lateral Thinking

The concepts of “divergent thinking” and ” convergent thinking ” were introduced by the American psychologist JP Guilford in 1956 , and developed over the following years . The idea of ​​”thinking outside the box,” ” thinking outside the box  spread throughout the 1960s in the world of business consultants. Several authors claim its popularization, including Mike Vance, who worked with Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, or John Adair,  leadership specialist.  Taking up the concept of divergent thinking and the principle of thinking outside the box, lateral thinking is detailed and theorized by the Maltese psychologist Edward de Bono . He used the term for the first time in 1967, in his book ” The Use of Lateral Thinking” , and subsequently published numerous books on this theme and more generally on the means of developing his creativity. Paul Sloane also contributed, after him, to popularize this concept, especially in books of puzzles and problems .

Simple examples of lateral thinking

lateral thinking examples dilemma
Lateral thinking allows us to consider more options than usual.

Below we will see five simple examples of lateral thinking, expressed as riddles:

  • The shipwrecked dilemma . A shipwrecked man needs to move some wrecks of his ship to his island of residence, which emerged on the shore of the opposite island. There you have a fox, a rabbit and a bunch of carrots, which you can take in your boat at the rate of one per trip. How can you take it all to your island, without the fox eating the rabbit, or the fox eating carrots?

Answer : You should take the rabbit first and leave the fox with the carrots. Then go back and take the fox, who will leave alone on his island, take the rabbit and take him back to the one in front. Then he will take the carrots, leaving the rabbit alone and depositing them next to the fox. Finally he will return to make one last trip with the rabbit.

  • The elevator dilemma . A man who lives on the tenth floor of a building, takes the elevator every day to the ground floor, to go to work. In the afternoon, however, take the same elevator again, but if there is no one with it, go down on the seventh floor and climb the rest of the floors up the stairs. Why?

Answer : The man is a dwarf and fails to press the tenth floor button.

  • The paradox of the globe . How can we prick a balloon with a needle, without air leaking and without the balloon exploding?

Answer : We must prick the balloon while deflated.

  • The dilemma of the bar . A man enters a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water. The bartender searches under the bar and suddenly points to the man with a gun. The latter thanks and leaves. What just happened?

Answer : The bartender noticed that the man had hiccups, and decides to treat him by giving him a good scare.


Lateral thinking is defined when you have a different orientation or point of view in the normal line, that is, from those that could reasonably be obtained as a result of a given questioning in a given average. For example: a classroom teacher asked his students to sum all positive numbers less than 100. Gauss , kid, even before he started doing the math, found that the sum of the first N whole numbers is always given by the formula 1/2 * (N + 1) * N, that is, he used lateral thinking to argue that the best way to get the answer was in a triangle with 100 rows, each with 100 points.

We can do the same thing for years, without, however, noticing other ways of doing them, besides the one that was based in our practices, and lateral thinking, if we have developed it, stimulates a new perspective, thus allowing different ways of performing customary tasks, new insights, new methods and techniques.

We can see this in people who are not always very intelligent according to the parameters of assessment through IQs and other intelligence measuring instruments, but who, despite this, have a completely different view than expected when looking at the average of people from a given context, and this characteristic of differentiation from the majority can be decisive, many times, to solve a problem or even to save a company in difficulties or in need of new operational parameters – examples such as those by Gestetner, from IBM, Lee Iacoca at Chrysler, Welch at GE, and Steve Jobs at Apple illustrate the validity of lateral thinking.

As strategies to improve lateral thinking we can mention the use of great power of observation, critical analysis and robustness of diverse knowledge. The development of lateral thinking can be exercised – think about what you are doing now, imagine different (and viable) ways to do better. In your company, imagine how to do things differently that have been done for many years. Criticize, question, study, develop, observe.

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