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Lateral thinking

From Academic Kids

Lateral thinking is a term invented by Edward de Bono. He defines it as a technique of problem solving by approaching problems indirectly at diverse angles instead of concentrating on one approach at length. For example:

It took two hours for two men to dig a hole five feet deep. How deep would it have been if ten men had dug the hole for two hours?

The answer appears to be 25 feet deep, but we can generate some Lateral thinking ideas about what affects the size of the hole:

  • A hole may need to be a certain size or shape so digging might stop early at a required depth.
  • The deeper a hole is the more effort is required to dig it since waste soil needs to be lifted higher to the ground level. There is a limit to how deep a hole can be dug by man power without use of ladders or hoists for soild removal, and 25 feet is beyond this limit.
  • Deeper soil layers may be harder to dig out, or we may hit bedrock or the water table.
  • Each man digging needs space to use a shovel.
  • It is possible that the more people you have working on a project, the more each person will assume he can slack off and there's more people to talk to.
  • More men could work in shifts to dig faster for longer.
  • We have more men but do we have more shovels.
  • Were the two hours dug by ten men may be different weather conditions to the two hours dug by two men.
  • Would we rather have 5 holes each 5 feet deep?
  • Rain could flood the hole to prevent digging.
  • The two men may be an engineering crew with digging machinery.
  • What if one man in each group is a manager who will not actually dig?

The most useful ideas listed above are outside the simple mathematics implied by the question. Lateral is about thinking that is not immediately obvious and about ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.

Techniques that apply Lateral thinking to problems are characterised by the shifting of thinking patterns away from entrenched or predictable thinking to new or unexpected ideas. A new idea that is the result of Lateral thinking is not always a helpful one, but when a good idea is discovered in this way it is usually obvious in hindsight, which is a feature Lateral Thinking shares with a joke.

A notation used in Lateral thinking, is Po. This stands for Provocative operation and is used to propose an idea which may not necessarily be a solution or a 'good' idea in itself, but moves thinking forward to a new place where new ideas may be produced.


Example problems

  • The problem is that Muhammad won't come to the mountain.
    • Po: The mountain must come to Muhammad (the classic answer).
    • Po: Use a video conference (an IT idea).
    • Po: Use an intermediary.
    • Po: Ask him what he wants to come to the mountain (a deal)
    • Po: See if he'll accept a free time share slot in a holiday home (that just happens to be on the mountain).
    • Po: Wait until he changes his mind.
    • Po: Cut your losses and tackle a different problem.

These are all Provocative operations and characterise a stage of Lateral Thinking where the ideas generated need further work in order to become solutions.


  • How long would it take to dig half a hole?
    • You can't dig half a hole.
  • If one egg takes three minutes to boil, how long do two eggs need to cook?
    • About three minutes (the energy needed to get the eggs to cook is small in comparison to the energy needed to get the surrounding water to boil)
  • If a knot in a 5-foot rope takes five minutes to undo, how long would a knot in a 10-foot rope take to undo?
    • Also five minutes (the length of rope usually has nothing to do with the complexity of the knot, and at most more rope might need to be pulled through the knot, but this will not double the overall time).

See also

Further reading

af:Laterale denke pl:Myślenie lateralne

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