Some Lateral Thinking Examples
Here are some examples of lateral thinking puzzles based on
a realistic scenario. We'll not only look at some possible solutions
to the following problem, but we'll look at how to arrive at
"lateral" possibilities. This will help us better understand
what the expression means and how to actually think more creatively.
Six friends were on a large sail boat far out to sea. They
had the usual safety gear on board, including an inflatable life
raft and personal flotation vests (life jackets). They decided
to go for a swim in the calm waters, and one by one jumped over
the edge. One had a plastic float toy, another a diving mask,
and only one was wearing a life jacket. One man was wearing denim
shorts with a knife on the belt, and the rest simply had on their
swim suits. You may recognize this as a movie which was supposedly
based on a true story.
They realized too late that nobody had put the ladder down.
The sides of the boat were smooth polished fiberglass and sloped
out over their heads. It was at least six feet up to the railing.
They tried jumping high enough, but soon they were tired and
cold. A breeze blew a jacket to the edge above, and a sleeve
hung low enough that one of the men was able to grab it and pull
the nylon jacket into the water with them. There was no land
in sight. What could they do to save themselves?
The More Obvious Solutions
As mentioned, they tried jumping out of the water to reach
the railing. As I recall, a couple of them even tried lifting
another up, but they sunk into the water as they lifted her.
Those, and swimming around the boat to see if there was anything
hanging down to climb up on, were what I would consider the expected
A bit more creative, although still a fairly "linear"
solution, was to use their swim suits, and the jacket tie to
create a "rope" that could be thrown up to the railing.
Once tangled or caught on the railing, it could then be climbed.
In the movie, it took them hours to think of this, and after
one attempt during which the clothing broke halfway through the
climb, they gave up, as people strangely do in movies.
The More "Lateral" Examples
Lateral thinking, remember, is moving away from the usual
logic and linear line of reasoning. For example, it is logical
to think about jumping up to reach the railing, and to help a
person do that. A more creative or lateral approach would be
to question the logic of using people as "muscle" for
this attempt. What else could they be? Flotation.
One man could have leaned over and held his hands on his knees
to provide a platform (his back) for another to climb on. Meanwhile,
the others could each take a deep breath and swum down under
the first to provide more flotation. They could have held the
inflatable toy and life jacket under there as well. This might
have kept the "platform" man floating high enough for
the climber to stand on and reach the railing.
Lateral thinking, then, is sometimes about using what you
have in unexpected ways. The knife, for example, might be used
more conventionally to cut strips from the clothing and webbing
from the life jacket to make a rope - not a bad idea either.
But a more "lateral" though is for a man to pound it
into the hull of the boat and use it to hang from while the lightest
woman climbs over him to the railing.
But to think in lateral or non-linear ways also means to challenge
the whole line of thought that the pursuit of a solution is based
on. In this case, that line of thought is that they had to get
back on the boat. Of course it is natural to think that is the
only way to survive, but what if it wasn't? What if they don't
actually need the boat?
Those kind of questions can sometimes lead to the most creative
solutions. In this case, for example, had they challenged their
assumption that the boat was so important, this lateral thinking
may have lead to a very creative solution: Use the knife to cut
a hole in the hull and sink the boat. As the boat got lower,
they could have scrambled aboard and retrieved the life raft
and supplies before it sank completely.
In the movie the knife is lost, and eventually four of the
six died. The remaining two are saved using a broken piece of
the face of the diving mask. This is jammed into a crack where
the mechanical ladder normally opens, and the man hangs on it
while the woman climbs over him and reaches the railing. Of course,
since I did not mention the crack, this wouldn't be one of your
solutions. But it is one of the better examples of a lateral
thought process in this realistic scenario.