After attending my creativity workshop, a woman sent me an e-mail asking whether linear thinking was bad.
I understand why she’d think so. A quick Google search on linear thinking – or its counterpart lateral thinking – will uncover a number of articles and blog posts which declare that lateral thinking is preferable to linear thinking. And that’s true, if your goal was to generate the widest variety of options to solve a problem, or need multiple alternatives to an existing path. But it’s not the right path if your goal is a systematic, logical and singular answer.
Neither Linear or Lateral Thinking is the right answer for every situation. They’re simply different ways to think, each having advantages and drawbacks. So, to answer the woman’s original question: Neither way to the wrong way to think, as long as you know when to use the right one.
Linear Thinking (also known as Vertical Thinking) and Lateral Thinking (or Horizontal Thinking) were terms named by Edward de Bono in his 1967 book “The Use of Lateral Thinking.”
Linear Thinking is based on logic, rules and rationality (or sustained reason) to solve a problem. The thought process is singular: there is one path toward completion which ignores possibilities and alternatives. It’s methodical, sequential and focused. Each step is dependent upon a yes (correct) or no (not correct) option or solution. It’s easy to repeat, and to teach others. The process tends to be efficient, organized and completed on time. A person who uses Linear Thinking is constant.
Not surprisingly, experts say this type of thinking accounts for 90% of our thinking each day – and no wonder. In a business situation, this type of behaviour is highly valued. In general, people who primarily use Linear Thinking are viewed as honest, maturity and intelligent. The person using Linear Thinking is selective, concentrated and automatic. Many professions rely heavily on Linear Thinking: solicitors, accountants, police, scientists, for example.
But Linear Thinking has drawbacks. As de Bono states in his book: “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”
Because Linear Thinking sees the world only as black and white, the person using this thinking style cannot create options, make secondary arrangements if the primary procedure breaks down, find the middle ground, or reach compromise. Because Linear Thinking is repetitious, the outcome never changes, which can lead to diminishing results. As Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”
The core of Lateral Thinking is to break from the established process to see the world – particularly the problem – from different and multiple perspectives. It ignores logic for unorthodox or random stimulation. A person using Lateral Thinking searches for as many alternative ways to view the problem, situation or environment – any one of which may produce a new and unusual answer … or as frequently not.
The thought process of Lateral Thinking is not a straight line. A person using Lateral Thinking is more interested in the journey than the destination. The hallmarks of Lateral Thinking are discovery, exploration and spontaneity. It seeks disruption, rejects traditional, and explores unusual or illogical combinations. Outside influences are welcomes as much as fate, luck and chance. There are no mistakes, only an opportunity which didn’t work as hoped.
But Lateral Thinking has drawbacks too. Because it’s based on chaos, there is no completion of the task. There is no objective because Lateral Thinking considers every source – including the inappropriate, illegal and idiotic – as equal. And, without objective, the person using Lateral Thinking may spin out of control, unable to find direction, or simply become paralyzed with too many options. If something brilliant is created (read: challenging the status quo), this provocative thinking is often repellent to, if not critical of, The Establishment.
Think of Linear Thinking as driving a highway to your destination. It’s speedy, well-marked and easy to reach the destination. But what happens if something happens along the way, such as a major road block, construction or a traffic jam. Linear Thinking can’t progress. There is only one direction, so either the driver has to force their way through the blockage – which is highly unusual or unlikely, if not impossible – or they have to sit and wait. Conversely, drivers who use Lateral Thinking have no problem turning off, finding a different route, and enjoying the route. But it’ll take far more time, it’s much easier to get lost, and the focus is lost. The destination is not the goal, the journey is, so it’s quite possible the Lateral Driver will never show up.
In short, the driver using Linear Thinking is be safe, keep your nose down, and let’s just get it done. The driver using Lateral Thinking is let’s go, let’s see what we can see, and if we get lost, so be it. Neither is a wrong approach, but you might see now that the driver who uses both Linear and Lateral Thinking, at the right times, will have the most efficient and most diverse drive.
Perhaps too you can see the two types of thinking aren’t just opposite, they’re also complementary. They balance each other. If the Linear Thinker couldn’t switch to Lateral Thinking, nothing would ever improve. If the Lateral Thinker couldn’t switch Linear Thinking, no new idea could be implemented.
Going one step further, Howard Gardner, who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, once said that “Vertical thinkers are experts, and Horizontal Thinkers are visionaries.”