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Lateral thinking is such a familiar concept that it’s virtually synonymous with ‘creative thinking’. The phrase ‘lateral thinking’ is frequently used interchangeably with ‘creativity’. We take it for granted that creative people think different to the rest of us. It’s what makes them creative.
The popularity of lateral thinking is testament to the creativity, productivity and promotional energy of its originator, Edward de Bono. For four decades, he has taught lateral thinking via his books, articles, lectures and consulting. De Bono has been a tireless advocate for the value of creative thinking, and he deserves credit for helping to push creativity to the forefront of the business agenda.
Thanks to de Bono’s efforts, lateral thinking is now universally acknowledged as an essential skill for creativity and innovation.
Or is it?
Psychology professor and creativity expert Robert Weisberg is highly critical of lateral thinking and claims it is unnecessary for creativity. He groups lateral thinking with psychologist J.P. Guilford’s concept of ‘divergent thinking’, since both approaches ‘have as a central idea that overcoming old habits (that is, being flexible, moving laterally), is the crux of creative thinking’.
In his book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, Weisberg claims there is very little evidence for this kind of thinking in the work of great creators:
a number of detailed reports of scientific discovery, artistic creativity, and invention are available, including Darwin’s notebooks on the development of his theory of evolution, Watson’s report of the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule, Picassos preliminary sketches for several of his most famous paintings, and Edison’s notebooks on the invention of the kinetoscope. These examples are covered in detail in later chapters [of this book], and nothing like divergent thinking is evident in any of them. Thus, although it seems reasonable to Guilford that producing many and varied ideas through “divergent” or “lateral” thinking ought to be a cornerstone of creative thinking, this idea does not seem to be correct.
What is going on here? How on earth can Weisberg claim that lateral thinking is not ‘a cornerstone of creative thinking’?
What Exactly Is Lateral Thinking?
Lateral thinking was developed by Edward de Bono in response to the following question:
Why do some people always seem to be having new ideas while others of equal intelligence never do?
(Edward de Bono, New Think)
He describes lateral thinking as a special kind of thinking that is distinct from ordinary logic – which he terms ‘vertical thinking’:
Lateral thinking is concerned with the generation of new ideas…
Lateral thinking is also concerned with breaking out of the concept presence of old ideas. This leads to changes in attitude and approach; to looking in a different way at things which have always been looked at in the same way. Liberation from old ideas and the stimulation of new ones are twin aspects of lateral thinking.
Lateral thinking is quite distinct from vertical thinking which is the traditional type of thinking. In vertical thinking one moves forward by sequential steps each of which must be justified…
Lateral thinking is not a substitute for vertical thinking. Both are required. They are complementary. Lateral thinking is generative. Vertical thinking is selective.
(Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking)
De Bono describes lateral thinking as ‘a habit of mind and an attitude of mind’ which can be fostered by practising specific lateral thinking techniques, such as:
- Challenging assumptions (e.g. by thinking outside the box)
- generating alternatives (even when you have an apparently satisfactory solution)
- suspended judgement
- random stimulation (e.g. by opening a dictionary to find a random word and apply it to the problem)
In New Think, de Bono provides the following example of a fresh perspective resulting in a creative solution to a problem:
It is not easy to get outside a particular way of looking at things in order to find a new way. Very often all the basic ingredients of a new idea are already to hand and all that is required is a particular way of assembling them. The aim of the lateral thinker would be to try to find this right way of looking at the features of the problem. He would be made more aware of what was already implicit in what he knew. In this way the basic knowledge and expertise in a particular field could be fully utilized.
For many years physiologists could not understand the purpose of the long loops in the kidney tubules: it was assumed that the loops had no special function and were a relic of the way the kidney had evolved.Then one day an engineer looked at the loops and at once recognized that they could be part of a counter-current multiplier, a well-known engineering device for increasing the concentration of solutions. In this instance a fresh look from outside provided an answer to something that had been a puzzle for a long time. The usefulness of an outside view of a problem is not only that special experience from a different field can be brought to bear but also that the outsider is not bogged down by the particular way of approaching things that has developed in those closest to the problem… Unfortunately expertise in a field does not by itself imply an ability to look at things in different ways; lateral thinking may be required for that.
(Edward de Bono, New Think)
This example is typical of de Bono’s writing, in emphasising the superiority of a ‘fresh perspective’ and lateral thinking over ‘expertise’ and getting ‘bogged down by [a] particular way of approaching things’. For de Bono, the ability to think laterally is what distinguishes creative people from noncreative people.
How Can You Be Creative without Lateral Thinking?
Robert Weisberg argues that there is very little evidence of lateral thinking in the work of great creators such as Mozart, Beethoven, Darwin, Edison, Coleridge, Whitman and the Wright brothers. For him, the idea of extraordinary creative thinking processes is part of ‘the Genius myth’, in which creative achievers are placed on pedestals above the rest of us mere mortals.
He argues that the creative process takes place via a process of logical thinking, trial and error, feedback and reflection – all of which involves ‘ordinary thought processes’ rather than lateral thinking. Whereas de Bono stresses the need to take off the ‘blinkers’ of past knowledge in order to look at things afresh and come up with new solutions, Weisberg argues that expertise and knowledge based on past experience are the foundation on which creators build.
For example, here’s Weisberg’s response to de Bono’s story of the kidney and the engineer:
On the basis of this sort of example, de Bono recommends that in order to solve a recalcitrant problem, one should adopt a fresh perspective, in this case that of the engineer. That is … one is urged to break away from one’s knowledge. However, from the perspective of the engineer, there was nothing new involved: He was able to apply his knowledge relatively directly to the new situation he was presented with, because of a straightforward relationship between what he saw and what he knew. For the engineer, this response was just another example of recognising something familiar. … It is only from the perspective of the perplexed physiologist that there is anything requiring explanation in terms of creative thinking.
… It is only when we examine the situation from outside, as an ignorant observer, that we feel the necessity to postulate basic differences between creative and noncreative individuals. That is, it may not be necessary to assume that creative individuals differ from the noncreative in any significant way, except for the knowledge they possess.
(Robert Weisberg, ‘Creativity and Knowledge – a Challenge to Theories’, in Handbook of Creativity, ed Robert Sternberg)
So for Weisberg, creative people differ from noncreative people not in their use of lateral thinking, but in possessing different knowledge and skills.
He does concede that analogies are important in creative thinking, but argues that these are typically ‘near’ (i.e. obvious) analogies rather than the ‘distant’ (surprising) analogies recommended by de Bono. To us, the analogy between kidneys and engineering may seem creative and surprising, but for the engineer it was obvious and mundane.
In support of his argument that unusual thinking skills are unnecessary for creativity, he cites research showing a low correlation between high scores on creative thinking tests and actual creative performance.
Weisberg also backs up his case with a mass of evidence (manuscript drafts, prototypes, notebooks etc) from the work of famous creators in the fields of invention, science and the arts. He deliberately includes detailed case studies of avant-garde artists such as Picasso and Pollock, to show that even their radically new creations did not involve extraordinary thinking processes.
De Bono’s writings contain plenty of instructions on what he thinks we should do to improve our creativity. But although he mentions some impressive names along the way – such as Darwin, Marconi and Einstein – he offers nothing like the detailed evidence or analysis presented by Weisberg.
So if we put de Bono’s writing side by side with Weisberg’s, the evidence for lateral thinking techniques being used ‘in the field’ by distinguished creators starts to look a little thin.
What Do You Think of Lateral Thinking?
Do you make use of lateral thinking techniques in your work?
Do you agree that creative people ‘think different’ to the rest of us?
Is it possible to be outstandingly creative without using lateral thinking?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.