Munch Club #3: What is Lateral Thinking?

At our monthly Munch Club, the EmcArts staff gathers together at lunchtime to test out the tools used in our programs.

Liz Dreyer of EmcArts prepares for our lateral thinking exercises.
Liz Dreyer of EmcArts prepares for our lateral thinking exercises.

At last month’s Munch Club, we decided to stretch our lateral thinking muscles. So we read up on the topic in Edward de Bono’s book, Lateral Thinking, and tried out two exercises for ourselves.

What is lateral thinking?

Lateral thinking is a way of generating outside-the-box ideas.

It is both an attitude and a method. The attitude involves a refusal to accept rigid patterns and the method involves an attempt to put things together in new ways.

We read a couple chapters from Edward de Bono's book in preparation for last month's Munch Club.
We read a couple chapters from Edward de Bono’s book in preparation for last month’s Munch Club.

As opposed to vertical thinking, which moves one forward in sequential steps, lateral thinking involves restructuring, escape, and the provocation of new patterns.

Vertical thinking is selective. Lateral thinking is generative.

When is it useful?

The need for lateral thinking arises because our brains are naturally very good at creating patterns to handle information. The patterns become a kind of code—like the Dewey Decimal System—that allows us to collect just enough information to identify and replay existing patterns.

But these efficiencies also lead to a narrowing of our thinking. Lateral thinking is a process by which we can counter this narrowing of creativity and challenge old patterns.

You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.

– Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is best used to generate genuinely new ideas, at the point in your innovation process when you sense that extending existing ideas in the same direction will no longer lead you to success.

Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces.

Exercise #1: Random Entry

This exercise helps you generate outside-the-box ideas.

For a full explanation of this activity, plus worksheets to download, visit this post:

Do It Yourself: Random Entry

First, state your adaptive challenge. For Munch Club, we focused on our own challenge to develop more meaningful opportunities for ArtsFwd participants to engage in learning online around the process of innovation and adaptive change.

You begin the exercise by selecting a random word and then riffing off it to generate outside-the-box responses to your challenge. Just a few of the ideas we generated were: to produce a daily challenge, to print out pages of the site and turn them into paper hats, to commission games, and to create a satirical Onion-like version of ArtsFwd content.

We discovered a few themes across all the ideas: fun is key, it’s important to create urgency, and it’s important to be organic and responsive.

A delicious homemade lunch accompanies our Munch Club discussions.
A delicious homemade lunch accompanies our Munch Club discussions.

Exercise #2: Innovation Transfer

This exercise helps you apply successful strategies from previous innovations to your current project.

For a full explanation of this activity, plus worksheets to download, visit this post:

Do It Yourself: Innovation Transfer

  1. You begin by stating your adaptive challenge.
  2. You then list some feelings you associate with that challenge.
  3. Then, you make a list of other situations that made you feel like that.
  4. Next, you identify strategies that helped you meet that other challenge.
  5. Finally, you reflect on how you might apply those successful strategies from your other challenge to the current one.

We discovered a few common strategies for success: breaking the project down into manageable tasks, being well prepared, asking for help, focusing on bolstering self-confidence, getting external validation, and letting go of control.


The biggest takeaway for me is that lateral thinking is a process you can learn. Unlike creativity or insight, which can only be hoped for, lateral thinking is a deliberate method you can practice.

After Munch Club, I wrote this phrase up on my white board and I’ve found myself coming back to it often.

One can admire a result, but one can learn to use a process.

For me, this is what ArtsFwd is all about. If we only showcase the result of an innovative project, that’s something you can admire. But if we can tell the story of a process, that’s something you can use.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.