What is Lateral Thinking & Why Employers Value It

Graduate jobs

July 22, 2021

Interview questions are designed to help an employer evaluate and assess your candidature for the job. Oftentimes these questions determine your ability to problem solve, deal with customers or clients, multitask and work independently or in teams. When an employer asks about your capacity to think laterally, it can feel a bit intimidating at first, but in reality, this question allows you to demonstrate your creativity, initiative and problem-solving skills. 


What is Lateral Thinking

The term lateral thinking was first coined by Edward de Bono in 1967. It refers to a person’s ability to address challenges by imagining new solutions outside of using deductive or logical reasoning. 


Lateral thinking, in other words, is the ability to use your imagination and creativity to problem solve and is the best way to demonstrate to employer ways you’ve helped your company in an original, experimental or novel way. This skill is highly prized, especially in the creative and tech industries.  


How is Lateral Thinking Assessed

Today’s workplace environment is facing newer and more difficult problems to solve. Novel problems require novel solutions. In order for businesses to grow, they need to expand their way of thinking. So, they seek employees who think in an innovative manner. When employers ask you about lateral thinking, they want to know if you are able to think outside the box. Logical thinking i.e. vertical thinking approaches challenges in a straightforward manner while lateral thinking takes a sideways perspective. 


In an interview setting, it can be tricky to identify if the employer is trying to test your lateral thinking abilities. Sometimes employers can actually ask you trick questions like riddles or puzzles. If you want to test out your riddle skills, the University of Kent has an excellent page full of them!


Often, however, the questions can range from a simple “Can you explain a time you used lateral thinking to get out of a difficult situation?” to a situation-based or case-based prompt. Remember that even in a problem-solving situation you can apply the SMART technique.


Here’s an example: A company may ask you how to retain their millennial and gen Z customer base. A conventional answer may be to provide frequent discounts and embrace new trends. A lateral thinking solution would look at the concerns of this customer segment and note that the company should focus on corporate social responsibility and reducing their eco-footprint because this age group tends to be more focused on social justice and environmental issues and would support a company that shares those same values. 


How to Develop Lateral Thinking

Edward de Bono developed a method known as the “Six Thinking Hats” that were designed to promote holistic lateral thinking in decision making and evaluation. Whether you’re in a team setting or working alone, de Bono encouraged individuals to cycle through the different hats, which allowed for a range of thinking (from emotional to intuitive, or rational to outside the box).


To better develop your lateral thinking skills, you don’t need a massive corporate or even global problem to solve. Lateral thinking is the way you approach the problem, so pick any problem you’re facing and determine how you can ameliorate the situation with an alternative solution. 


For example, every morning you like to get in a quick cardio session before taking the bus and train to work or school, however, you notice that each time you do this you have to skip breakfast in order to get to the bus stop on time. A logical or conventional answer may be to grab a granola bar and eat on the go. A lateral thinking response would go one step further. Instead of taking the bus to the station, walk the 2 miles, allowing you to a) get in your morning cardio b) arrive at your train 10 minutes earlier and c) give you time to grab a bite to eat calmly before the train departs. On top of that, you’re reducing your carbon footprint and saving money by avoiding the bus. 


Lateral thinking emphasizes generating many ideas while not getting caught up in the small details. This form of problem-solving encourages people to think more broadly in order to prevent tunnel vision and missing out on a more stellar opportunity.


Written by Lubna
Photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels

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