Lateral Thinking: What Is It and Benefits

Often in consulting, you will be told to think creatively to get the best solutions for your clients. In addition, clients prefer bringing in consultants to think of out of the box solutions they may not have thought of themselves. This is where lateral thinking comes in. Lateral thinking refers to the ability to think of out of the box ideas that you may not come up with through linear / logical thinking.

This article will share more about what lateral thinking is and how you can develop lateral thinking skills.

Lateral Thinking, What Is lateral thinking, Benefits of lateral thinking

What is Lateral Thinking?

You may be asking yourself “what is lateral thinking?” Well, lateral thinking refers to the ability to think of creative solutions to problems. These solutions are often not readily available through deductive reasoning or straightforward logic. Rather, the solutions are often out of the box and creative. Lateral thinking was first defined by Edward de Bono in 1967 and is synonymous with creative thinking.

Benefits of Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking has several benefits, especially in the corporate world. Example benefits of lateral thinking in the corporate world include:

    • Ability to create new and innovative products that solve consumers’ challenges
    • Ability to solve problems more effectively
    • Ability to determine new and creative paths of growth for companies; this is particularly relevant for companies that need to pivot from their legacy business models
    • Ability to think of “more effective mousetraps” for problems
    • Ability to improve your decision-making process by bringing more ideas to the table

Lateral Thinking Examples

There are several lateral thinking examples:

Netflix: Pivoting its business model to focus on internet subscriptions versus video rentals; Netflix is now one of the fastest growing companies, attracting top global talent, while Blockbuster is defunct

Human resources: Determining how to react and retain top talent; instead of just focusing on perks like free food and ping pong tables at work, HR departments focus on a variety of ways to engage their employees. For example, HR departments can look to deliver best-in-class benefits, enable employees to volunteer for their favorite causes, and show employees the upward mobility in their jobs.

Linear vs. Lateral Thinking

Linear and lateral thinking differ pretty substantially. Linear thinking focuses on logical and deductive reasoning where you go from one step to the other. On the other hand, lateral thinking focuses on finding more creative, “out of the box” solutions to problems. As an example, let’s say you work in human resources and need to improve the retention of your workforce.

If you are using linear thinking, you may approach this problem as follows:

Previously, we had best in class retention. However, the retention rates have dropped to be below average. When we had higher retention rates, we offered a lot of employee perks like free lunches and ping pong tables at work. We should add those perks back in, and we will get to our target retention numbers

On the other hand, if you are using lateral thinking, you may approach this problem as follows:

Our employee retention numbers are down. We used to have strong employee retention but even when giving perks, we saw early signs of employees leaving. We need to fundamentally change how we think about employee retention by understanding what is most important to our employees and what motivates them to work. For example, our employees are very mission-oriented and, as such, we should re-emphasize our company’s mission and provide employees with more volunteer hours.

Developing Lateral Thinking

You may be thinking, how can I develop lateral thinking skills? Well, there are several ways to improve your skills:

  • Be aware of the biases towards using linear thinking and when your ideas / solutions are more linear
  • Think about alternative solutions and figure out how too address situations from another angle
  • Ask questions
  • Practice, practice, and practice some more

Lateral Thinking Skills

There are several skills you can develop to improve your lateral thinking skills. Skills you can develop include:

    • Flexibility, e.g., think about how you can alter the solution set to see if you can come up with alternative ideas
    • Role playing, e.g., think about how a role model would handle the situation, e.g., how would Steve Jobs think about this
    • Creativity, e.g., how would the problem set change if I got rid of a specific constraint

Lateral Thinking Questions

There are several questions you can ask to improve your lateral thinking skills. Lateral thinking questions include:

    • What if …?
    • Why can’t this solution work?
    • What if I did not have to worry about this specific constraint?


Lateral thinking refers to the ability to think of creative ideas to problems. These solutions are often out of the box and are not readily available through linear thinking (e.g., moving from point A to point B to point C). Lateral thinking is critical when you need to transform your business model. To develop lateral thinking skills, it is important to continue to push yourself to think of alternative solutions to problems. Sometimes, it is helpful to put yourself into different entrepreneur’s shoes and think how they would have solved the problem. It is also critical to continue to ask yourself questions like what if we solved the solution this way. Therefore, lateral thinking is a key skill to develop to succeed in consulting.


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Filed Under: Consulting skills