Lateral (Divergent) Thinking – the process of creating multiple, unique ideas or solutions to a problem.
Our brains are hardwired to want to see and find patterns. So much so that we sometimes find and create patterns where they don’t indeed exist. Consider your daily routine. Can you predict what you will do each morning within the first ten minutes of getting out of bed? Odds are you have a logical course of action that you intend on taking. You might even refer to it as your “routine.” While there are many merits to developing a morning routine, have you considered ways to make that time better serve you? Now think about different problems you’ve tried to solve in the past. Does your brain develop standard solutions for them, and do you tend to turn that solution into your perception of logic? If you notice that you’re on repeat in life, in your relationships, or with work, it’s time to consider some lateral thinking techniques to break patterns and take your actions to new levels.
Lateral thinking is a concept that helps alleviate the notion that only one solution (or one pattern of solution) exists. It helps open possibilities while rewiring your brain to create new definitions of joy. Lateral thinking has proven to help people lead more solution-driven, fulfilled lives. Imagine not needing to constantly reply with “idk” to your friends when they ask you what you want to do this weekend via text. Think about how exciting it would be not to feel like everything in life was on a repeat cycle you’re forced to follow. Imagine the strength your personal and professional relationships would gain because you can have deeper, more meaningful conversations instead of the routine talks about empty ideas. Lateral thinking is key to these improvements.
The first step to improving lateral thinking is understanding the different types that exist and seeing which you feel more naturally drawn to. The table below lists the easiest four types to spot.
If one of the self-reflective questions matches your thought patterns when you are at your creative best, you can build off that thinking type to improve your lateral thinking. Identifying your preferred thinking habit helps you realize that additional ways to think through a solution exist. The next time you encounter a problem or situation that needs resolution, try thinking it through from any of the three remaining thinking habits. If, as opposed to your usual thoughts, you start to find solutions to suit multiple problems, quickly create long solution-based ideas, pinpoint details to help you develop more robust solutions, or work backward from your desired outcome, you are training yourself to improve your lateral thinking skills.
Beyond identifying and practicing different solution habits, your goal to expand your lateral thinking skills should stay deeply connected to your curiosity. Increasing your curiosity will help you remove assumptions and limiting beliefs. Curiosity, by its nature, will help you look at things from different perspectives and angles. This is why reading is such a powerful tool for the brain. It positively forces information to be organized in a way you hadn’t considered initially, so it helps you build new ideas for future thought. The more you can get your mind to want to be curious, the more you will develop a substantial potential for lateral thinking.
Working in teams or brainstorming with groups is another empowering way to improve the creative thinking process. Teamwork often leads to a similar output as reading because it puts potential ideas in your mind that might not have been created as quickly on your own. This process is enhanced by our brain’s ability to compute thoughts faster and synergistically with others trying to achieve the same goal. Think about a time when you were in a group trying to figure something out collaboratively. Whether deciding what to do on a Saturday night or thinking through a complex case at work, if everyone remained dedicated to finding solutions, the thought process was likely quicker and probably better than if you had been alone. This isn’t to say you can’t come to great solutions alone. Still, group brainstorming (or a Coach’s ThinkTank/Group Meeting) will notably create more robust opportunities for you to develop more significant lateral thinking abilities.
Keeping an open mind, collaborating with peers, and identifying different solution-finding techniques are all ways to improve your lateral thinking and develop more creativity in all aspects of life. This is partly why executive and business coaches are used in the strongest companies. A coach will challenge your way of thinking or explore different thoughts about topics you generally speak in your mind so that you can find new solutions you didn’t initially consider. Exploring additional avenues of thought is an exercise for your brain. Why not strengthen the largest organ in your body (especially when it is the control center for everything you do)? The more you can think creatively, the better your conversations, the stronger your relationships, and the deeper your success, professionally and personally. When it comes to creativity, solving a problem isn’t about the perceived “smartest” solution but the strategy of approaching it with an open mind.