Project Management

Lateral Thinking

last edited by: Kyle Silverstein on Aug 16, 2017 2:18 PM login/register to edit this page

1 Applications
2 Procedures
3 Instructions
4 Reference

A set of techniques used to stimulate creative or "out of the box" thinking. Applying Lateral Thinking techniques is a deliberate strategy to interrupt normal, linear thought patterns, to facilitate the transition between patterns, and to widen the range of possibilities.

Edward DeBono's concepts of Lateral Thinking include the following characteristics:

  • the nature of thought should be provocative, non-sequential, and nonlogical
  • the process should seek additional options, exploring unlikely paths, and does not have to be "correct"
  • the process should attempt to escape from established patterns, labels, and classifications
  • results are unpredictable and/or probabilistic

There are essentially five types of Lateral Thinking techniques:

  • Free Association
  • Reversal
  • Distortion
  • Literalization

Factoring Other techniques are available to stimulate creative or lateral thinking. These include:

  • Checklists
  • Attribute analyses
  • Games and exercises
  • Metaphors and analogies


  • To stimulate creative thinking during brainstorming, visioning, and reengineering sessions.
  • To help project teams affiliate.


  1. Recognize or identify a team working session situation that requires new thinking.
  2. Select an appropriate lateral or creative thinking technique.
  3. If required, provide participants with instructions to put the participants at ease with the technique.
  4. Apply the technique.
  5. Process results as needed.


Use free association to inject random thoughts into the thinking, problem solving, or brainstorming process. Free association can also be used to discover new associations. Invert an idea, problem, objective, and/or goal to apply the concept of reversal. For example, if the goal was to decrease the number of customer complaints, reversal would cause one to consider what to do to increase the number of complaints. A set of new alternatives to actually achieving the original goal can be created.

Lateral Thinking can also be achieved by distorting the facts, minimizing or maximizing, as required, to provide a fresh perspective on a problem or situation. Through the use of literalization, an abstract of figurative word or phrase can be taken at "face value" to create a new way of looking at a problem (e.g., a clock that actually "tells" time - a speaking clock!). Factoring can be used to break down inhibiting patterns into component parts and, through recombination, create a new set of alternatives to evaluate.

Sometimes creativity can be enhanced by making lists to check for various lateral thinking characteristics. For example, a list of questions to test for each of the five lateral thinking concepts can be used. Applying the concept of factoring, the attributes of the problem, product and/or service can be itemized and listed in an idea box. Alternatives to these attributes can be brainstormed (see Brainstorming). Taking this technique further, these alternatives can be randomly applied to create a new product or service or redefine the problem in a completely different way, uncovering causes and effects (see Root Cause Analysis).

Various intellectual, physical, and/or "wild" idea games and exercises can be used to stimulate thinking. These techniques can also be used as ice breakers or team affiliation exercises (see Facilitation and Team Building). Getting a project team up after a long working session and having them move around can help to break the set pattern of behavior. Intellectual exercises, such as puzzles, riddles, problem solving, story interpretations, etc., can be fun, energizing, and stimulating. Wild ideas can also be used to jar one's mindset or orientation, perhaps eliciting an emotional, nonlinear response.

Analogies are used to compare the characteristics of similar things. There are four types of analogies which could be used to shed light on an idea, a problem, or an issue:

  • Personal analogies require that one identifies with one or more aspects of the problem, from the problem's point of view.
  • Direct analogies focus on the attributes or characteristics of a problem, an object, or idea to generate a list of things observable. From this list, similarities can be discovered, alternatives can be proposed, and/or comparisons to other problems, events, ideas, and objects can be made.
  • Symbolic analogies involve key elements of a product, service, problem, or situation and identifying visual images. To apply this analogy, close your eyes and block out verbal thoughts. All visual images can be described verbally or can be drawn at a later time.
  • Fantasy analogies are used during problem solving to imagine the most perfect world, suspending judgement on all ideas generated. These ideas can then be associated in interesting new ways and may provide solutions that break with tradition.


  1. Michael Michalko. THINKERTOYS: A Handbook of Business Creativity For The 90s. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

last edited by: Kyle Silverstein on Aug 16, 2017 2:18 PM login/register to edit this page

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