Lateral thinking is a special form of “thinking outside the box.” Technically it is a way of intentionally coming at a topic or problem from a different point of view. But it also is creative way of thinking you can develop as a background habit.
As with anything you want to do well, the more you practice lateral thinking, the better you will be at it.
1. Emulate lateral thinkers.
A major part of lateral thinking is experience, and the first step of experience is seeing it in action. However, most of us don’t notice when others are doing it. You have to pay attention and look for it. When someone comes up with surprising answers or seems to think differently from others, pay attention to what they say and do. You can ask them questions about how they come up with their answers, but even just noticing that they are doing it is the first step.
2. Study subjects you know nothing about, especially if they involve skills.
Part of lateral thinking is being able to get into another mindset. If you are used to numbers and spreadsheets, read about creative writing, or poets. If you are a poet you can benefit by reading about mathematicians and physicists. You don’t have to become one, but when you open your mind to just learn about how others think — what issues and problems and tools they use — you prepare your mind to think in different ways.
3. Practice your lateral thinking with creativity exercises.
Spend some time each week, or better yet each day, pushing your mental envelope.
Lateral thinking in particular is all about bringing together things that are seemingly unrelated. So start with a topic or problem, and then find random objects or words or concepts to relate to the topic. Or you can push the envelope of your thinking in other ways by making a list of things that are outlandish versions of the problem or issue – exaggerate it, make it bigger or smaller. If something is straightforward and objective, like making coffee, find moral and emotional issues related to it. Get ridiculous, get silly. The key here is, though, to get DIFFERENT.
Use very exercise you find, but also invent your own. You need both outside and inside input to think in a lateral way.
4. Look for ways to apply what you learn in everyday life.
Lateral thinking, like any skill, takes time to learn. And as with any skill, you learn more by applying it to real problems than you do by just doing exercises. After you get good at the exercises, start collecting issues and problems in your real life to start thinking laterally about, and set aside time to think about it. It could be anything from your need to find more time to spend with your kids, to how to decide who to vote for, to how to get a promotion or better job.