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What is innovative thinking?

James Davis

It’s sometimes difficult to know what employers, professors and mentors mean by this. We’ll give you the run-down on how to identify and practice innovative thinking.

Theories on thought, thinking and the right way of doing it have been topics of many philosophical debates over the centuries. Modern conceptions of thinking and psychology give us a pretty good idea what works for what situations, but there are not one but several ways to thinking innovatively. In this article, we’ll cover just two popular methods of innovative thinking and what they’re used for.

Lateral thinking

This is what people mean when they ask you to “think outside the box.” It’s a way of doing your best to come up with multiple different solutions to a problem and recognising they’re all viable. The term was created by Edward de Bono, a Maltese inventor, philosophy and physicist who was himself quite the lateral thinker! In order to practice doing it yourself, there are several ‘thinking tools’ you can use in your daily life.

  1. Alternatives. Looking at problems and doing your best to come up with others that could work, no matter how outlandish, is a great way to develop practical creativity. 

  2. Focus. This is your ability to stay on-task without getting distracted. You can develop this through meditation, or just being conscious of how and when you’re getting distracted during lectures or uni work. Whenever you feel the urge to check your phone, recognise that you feel this urge and put it away. You’ll be improving your self-discipline and focus each time you resist and keep doing your work. 

  3. Random entry. Unlike the first point, which is you coming up with creative ways to do things, this refers to being open to new ideas in general. If a friend has a solution to their problem that sounds bizarre, hear them out and really think about it. Giving each idea due consideration is one of the keys to lateral thinking. Practicing this in your daily life can sharpen your lateral thinking skills when it comes to smashing out those assignments. 

  4. Provocation. If something makes you angry, anxious or stressed, do your best to turn it into an opportunity. How can you turn that anger into productivity? How can I use this stress to my advantage? Staying objective when you’re under the pump can help you both academically and professionally. It’s a real key to lateral thinking. 

  5. Harvesting. Of the ideas you generate, how well can you choose the best one? This is a natural part of the process, as leaving a whole bunch of alternatives hanging obviously isn’t going to help until you pick one! At first, you’ll be doubting yourself and not entirely sure as to which alternative is best, but if you can stay calm, consider as many dimensions of the problem as possible and just keep practicing at it, you’ll become a real lateral thinker. 

  6. Treatment of ideas. Altering your solutions to fit different scenarios can help you grow your creativity. 

It takes a fair bit of work to start thinking like this, but thinking is something you can do wherever you are. If you’re on the bus into uni, just turn off all your devices and think of multiple ways to write that paper or solve that problem. Consider alternatives proposed to you during that group project. The more you think about what’s happening in your life, chances are you’ve got plenty of opportunities to practice that lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking is great for multifaceted tasks that don’t have a clearly established order, such as a creatively-oriented essay or group assignment. It’s great for coming up with creative solutions and is something you’ll find yourself using to solve not-so clear-cut problems later in your career too. 

Vertical thinking

This is often considered the opposite of lateral thinking, involving highly analytical, logical, step-by-step methods. Unlike the free-form nature of lateral thinking, vertical thinking is very structured. If you’re going into a STEM degree or are currently in one, chances are you’ve done your fair share of vertical thinking. Mathematics demands rigorous adherence to formula and procedure to get the correct answer, but this style of thinking can be applied to other areas too, like in many of the sciences.

Learning to think vertically is about using induction, that is, using cumulative evidence to support the truth of a conclusion. It’s all about leading up to one solution rather than multiple. Imagine having a box of infinite building blocks that fit together in particular ways. A lateral thinker will build all kinds of structures and then choose the one that fits together best, whereas a vertical thinker will try to build a single, large tower. 

It pays to be able to use both types of thinking, as both are needed in life. If you’re a scientist for instance, you’ll need vertical thinking to go through the rigorous process of testing, calculating and whatever else may pertain to your experiment or study at the time, but you’ll need lateral thinking to ask the right questions and form the right hypothesis in the first place. If you’re an artist musing on the numerous ideas for paintings that come to mind, vertical thinking can be used to reconcile the ideas and build them step-by-step into a piece that expresses precisely what you wish. 

Now you’ve got a better idea of what these types of thinking are and what they’re used for, why not try applying them to your work and life? They’ll certainly help you out in the assignments and exams to come.