Vertical vs. Lateral Thinking

Developing creative ideas to build innovative solutions requires changing perspectives and looking at the world through different lenses. Edward deBono coined the term “lateral thinking” to describe a way of thinking which leads to a wide-range of insights for developing creative ideas. Lateral thinking is a great skill to acquire to ensure a holistic view of issues and foster innovation. It helps us answer the question, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

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Vertical thinking is how most of us see the world. It is typically a structured process which looks for a defined answer through sequential steps. Each step must be relevant to the previous to move forward. The focus is on finding the correct answer and typically avoids creativity and experimentation. Vertical thinking is about analysis and judging ideas.

Lateral thinking compliments vertical thinking but avoids judging ideas; the focus is creating a large number of new ideas, good or bad. The focus is not on wrong or right, but focusing on the best solution. Lateral thinking provides the process for changing concepts and perceptions. This method forces you to break out of your comfort zone of what you only know and allows you to explore other possibilities to ensure the best idea is found. The goal is to move away from fixed pattern recognition that our brains love, and focus on movement and change. In addition, lateral thinking does not worry about the sequence of steps, just the development of alternative ideas.


Vertical thinking enhances the ideas generated by lateral thinking. When you dig a hole, vertical thinking will be used to dig the same hole deeper, whereas lateral thinking will be used to dig a hole in a different place. Most of us are born with this type of lateral thinking as children, but eventually lose it during school where strict adherence to following rules, focusing on the one right answer, and adopting negativity is the norm. Vertical thinking avoids negativity and brings our brains back to the process we all started with; inquisitiveness and creativity.


Using both vertical and lateral thinking is critical to identifying potential ideas for development. Use lateral thinking to develop a large number of new ideas. Then, use vertical thinking to help develop the best ideas. Lateral thinking for most adults has atrophied due to lack of use. Using the tools and techniques of lateral thinking will help you reawaken your creative thinking skills and help create amazing new products and services to outmaneuver competitors and continually wow customers.