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The Myth about Lateral Thinkers: A Know-It-All or Real-Knower?!

Lateral thinking as a prerequisite for innovation

Magazines and blogs are good at proclaiming things like “The world needs more lateral thinkers.” But is there a generally accepted definition of what a lateral thinker actually is, or does, or the things they should not do to call themselves a lateral thinker? Stefan Odenbach, a project manager at TOP, the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Technology – Organization – Human Resources, decided to delve deeper into the topic for TRANSFER.

If you ask Google what a lateral thinker is, it comes up with answers like “A person who solves problems with an indirect and creative approach.” The lateral part of the term is an important part of the concept, as is underscored by the Latin origins of the word: latus, or side. So lateral thinking according to Wikipedia is an approach that deliberately moves aside from the standard perception of creativity as “vertical” logic. It finds ideas that may not be possible with traditional step-by-step logic. The term was promulgated as long ago as 1967 by Edward de Bono and has been used in a variety of publications ever since. In everyday language, lateral thinking is reflected in terms like “thinking outside the box.” The opposite is vertical or linear thinking.

According to the common definition, lateral thinking is not necessary an ability possessed by a genius or hugely talented person, something enjoyed only by certain people. As such, it is therefore learnable. This also explains the growing number of courses for learning lateral thinking and the methodical – thus deliberately systematic – approach called Design Thinking. Whether uncreative people can really be transformed by this, is something you have to work out for yourself. Well, that’s the drab theory, but what is it like in reality on the front line of everyday business? The fact of the matter is, being able to think laterally is coming more and more into demand, and it even comes up in job interviews. For some jobs, it’s considered a special skill or even a fundamental prerequisite that is seen as an asset (depending on the field or profession). The best example has to be Apple, which without doubt has to be the most innovative company of modern times; and sadly, the world has to have lost one of the best possible lateral thinkers when Steve Jobs passed away – much too early. As everyone knows, Apple only wants the best of the best: astute, analytical, quick-witted. When they interview people, some of the most remarkable, almost odd questions are asked. For example, if you apply as a product design engineer, you may be asked: “We have a cup of hot coffee and a small cold milk out of the fridge. The room temperature is in between these two. When should we add milk to coffee to get the coolest combination earliest (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end)?”

So is a lateral thinker just someone who thinks they know everything, or do they actually know something the rest of us don’t? If we look back over time, we find that the best lateral thinkers in their area, such as Aristotle, Einstein, and Galileo, were often mocked and at first, their ingenious ideas did not go down too well. All too often, thinking laterally – even trailblazingly, questioning convention – could put life and limb at risk. Sometimes people only started praising the virtues of lateral thinkers when they were dead. In certain ways, things are no different nowadays. Even Steve Jobs sometimes had his difficulties and there are examples of other innovative startups that were initially either laughed at by the market, or they were consciously played down until they had a breakthrough (such as Uber and Airbnb). Other lateral thinkers like Elon Musk of Tesla Motors have a highly proactive approach to their own role as a lateral thinker and make heretic utterances like, “If a trend becomes obvious, you’re too late!”

A lateral thinker is thus a highly self-confident person, sometimes selfcentered or smug, and quite often they come across as arrogant. That’s probably a good thing if you spend a lot of time in a lonely struggle against the initial stance of resistance adopted by your friends, coworkers, work superiors, customers, or market competitors. If we look through the resume of lateral thinkers, we often find they had lots of stopovers in different roles. The majority end up working for themselves, probably because rather than work at cross-purposes with people, you can only concentrate properly on your own ideas if you’re your own boss. So lateral thinkers have not had it easy in their (working) lives and the typical corporate career is often impossible because of all the internal impediments. Let’s be honest – if anything, lateral thinkers are one thing: “uncomfortable.” They always question why things are the way they are, and they’re always pushing to change things.

And that is precisely the lifeblood of innovation. If you’re not able to engage in continual self-criticism when it comes to your own products, services, or thought patterns, if you’re not able to consciously challenge things, you won’t survive in the market in the long term. That’s the way it’s always been, since evolution continues relentlessly, and if you don’t keep pace you’re usually threatened with extinction. As a consequence, companies have to promote lateral thinking within their own ranks. Companies are not usually the best breeding ground for innovation, because they are often about standardizing procedures or mass production, and lateral thinking slows down cogs in the machinery. Big companies have recognized this and either set up their own startups (think tanks), or they have special creative departments working as staff functions somewhere outside the standard company hierarchy. This allows innovations to develop without restraint, feeding off the required budgets, in order to enter completely new markets. The best examples of this are Google and Facebook, who invest billions in totally new products and people. And judging by their success, they’re doing the right thing. Lateral thinkers actually do know something: the Earth is round and it goes around the sun!


Stefan Odenbach is a project manager for digital transformation at the Steinbeis Transfer Center Technology – Organization – Human Resources. The Steinbeis Enterprise offers support with raising productivity and reducing costs within companies and organizations; business analysis, company assessments, business evaluations, and business restructuring; the management and financial monitoring of collaborative agreements, investments, and company divestments; the analysis, assessment, and implementation of training instruments; the analysis of management accounting instruments; the analysis of costing and process cost controls in companies and organizations.

Stefan Odenbach
Steinbeis-Transferzentrum Technologie – Organisation – Personal (TOP) (Ravensburg)

So we have a question for you: When should you add the milk to the coffee? We’ve all met this everyday problem and who has never burned their tongue on a hot drink? So how would you solve it? If you’d like to, you can send us your ideas via email or add a comment to this article.