Lateral thinking is a technique used to induce innovation in idea creation by trying to shift patterns of thought off their linear and predictable trajectory using unconnected inputs to open up new lines of reasoning. Thought processes may be divided into vertical linear thinking which uses the process of logical reasoning to follow a well-defined path, or nonlinear lateral thinking which involves disrupting this linear thinking sequence and shifting sideways to try and arrive at the solution from another perspective. For example, many jokes work by moving you along in a sequential process – vertical thinking – and then suddenly shift you laterally.
Lateral thinking is based on an understanding of the brain as a pattern making system, with established patterns becoming routine ways of looking at things, regular thought processes or typical ways of doing things. These patterns because routing linear chains of cause and effect with one thing leading to another and it becomes difficult to break out of them, or to see another way of doing something. Lateral thinking means trying to move across from one pattern of thought to another, purposefully breaking out of a particular way of reasoning to see things in a new way and from this hopefully develop new solutions. As such lateral thinking methods are designed to provide a deliberate, systematic process that will result in innovative thinking.
Seeing The Obvious
Once one moves to a new pattern of thought, a previously inexplicable situation often comes to appear perfectly logical and “obvious.” Lateral thinking will often produce solutions whereby the problem appears as “obvious” in hindsight. Lateral thinking will often lead to solutions that one never knew existed, or may solve simple problems that have an enormous potential.1
As the inventor of the concept Dr. Edward de Bono said “In self-organizing information systems, asymmetric patterns are formed. Lateral Thinking is a method for cutting across from one pattern to another.” Lateral thinking helps to move from one way of seeing something to another parallel perspective, but once there the problem may be regarded in a new light and appear “obvious.”
Provocation is a creative thinking technique that involves introducing a new – often random – idea so as to break out of a linear pattern of thought that is constraining our thinking to a small subset of possibilities. Provocation is designed to reset the thinking process by starting from a random position and thus discontinuing what came before; requiring a new form of reasoning, with the net result being out-of-the-box thinking.
One example of this is given by Edward de Bono when trying to develop new ideas surrounding an issue with a company polluting river water. A provocation was introduce asking what would happen if the company released the waste from the production process before starting production? This is clearly an impossibility, but it reset the thinking process and eventually led to a solution whereby the company would have to release it pollution upstream from where it takes in its water; thus incentivizing it to release only treated water into the river.
Provocation techniques involve the use of, exaggeration, inversion, escape, distortion, and randomness. The thinker creates a list of provocations and then uses the most outlandish ones to move their thinking forward to new ideas. In so doing they have managed to move out of a linear pattern of thought into a new parallel pattern.2 Provocation is designed to challenge even the most obvious, firmly held assumptions and ways of reasoning. It may involve simply asking why to everything, and trying to disprove any generally held assumptions.
One example of lateral, out-of-the-box thinking, is the so-called “Google job experiment.” Here one New York graduate who desired to work in a top advertising agency Googled the names of the creative directors of these companies and then spent just six dollars on a set of Google ads that were triggered when the directors searched for their own names. The adverts said “Hey, (creative director’s name), Googling yourself is a lot of fun. Hiring me is fun, too” Of the five directors he focused on, four gave him an interview and two of them offered him a job. The applicant to this job knew that there were very many people applying and that taking a conventional approach would not work. It required this provocation and a new approach to achieving the end result through new different patterns of reasoning in order to be successful.