Lateral Thinking in Creative Projects

Lateral thinking in creative projects illustrationThe award for the most overused and trite term used in the creative agency goes to… “Think outside the box.” Why then write a post that props it up as an important element to the creative process and creative project management? Because I enjoy irony, and there is a lesson to learn in this aphorism that is oft overlooked and deserves greater attention afforded to it. Creative projects suffer from imbedding false assumptions and self-limiting beliefs into the project plan via a vertical, linear thinking that keep ideas well inside this proverbial box.

Let’s look at linear thinking and the dangers it presents to the creative project.

Client Requirements

The client has presented you with the challenge to connect nine dots with as few lines as possible. From those requirements the creative team can derive a problem statement that there is a lack of connection between these nine dots. We also understand from the stated requirements we are to use a line as means of connection. And that’s it, no other requirements are stated from the client. Immediately, our minds begin a linear dissection of the problem into a planned resolution employing Gestalt units of continuity, and organized patterns of perception that relate to our “common sense.” These patterns of perception will feed into the project definition in the form of the scope of work as the fundamental assumptions of the project.

Assuming the Box

Illustration showing a 5 line solution with lines extending beyond dotted line boxIn reviewing the client’s needs the creative team sets about making a number of assumptions. The linear brain begins to ask questions of logistics: dependencies, resources, tools, medium, and other boundaries as part of the normal cognitive biases associated with the human mind’s Functional Fixedness. It is here the creative team is stymied by the “organization of artifact concepts in terms of their design function as a symptom of their human semantic memory” (German and Barretts, 2004). The paradox arises: an industry that prides itself on innovation and “thinking outside the box” so frequently works in confines of false assumptions.

Nowhere in the client requirements was there a bit about the lines staying inside of an imaginary boundary. It is the nature of human intelligence to impose heuristic “realities” as the basis of the project. Somewhere between the problem statement and the proposed resolution, we self-impose false assumptions. I.E., we assume there is a box around the nine dots that the line cannot traverse through, and the lines must cut through the center of each dot. But the client requirements do not stipulate a methodology. We are free to be as creative in our solution as we choose, and by making these linear assumptions, the proposed solution isn’t necessarily transferring value to the client.

There are a number of solutions to the nine dot puzzle, see the links at the end of this post. They all involve challenging assumptions: folding the paper so pieces of the dots align for a single stroke to connect all nine, or placing the dots on a sphere and rotating so a single stroke connects all the dots, and many more.

Kobayashi Maru

Illustration showing paint brush with single stroke of paint.My favorite solution is one I read in a fantastic book by Michael S. Dobson that he calls the “fast line” solution (Dobson and Leemann, 2010). In this solution the assumption that the lines must be produced by a pen or pencil is challenged by using a paint brush to solve the client’s problem in a single, efficient stroke. This solution may seem like cheating at first glance which is the reason I referenced Kobayshi Maru in the heading. Again we are faced with the Functional Fixedness that we have to use the tools we are accustomed to in order to achieve our goals. That is fundamentally untrue and in fact is a divisive and harmful hindrance to the creative project.

Lateral Thinking

Thinking outside the box can be a trite aphorism or the missing puzzle piece to successful creative project management. What it encourages us to do is to employ Lateral Thinking techniques to challenge false assumptions about the constraints of the project. I can think of a number of conventional “agency best practice” assumptions I have faced in creative projects such as delivering three concepts. What assumptions do you find in creative projects? Leave me a comment and we can work to find lateral thinking opportunities in your creative projects.


Dobson, M., & Leemann, T. (2010). Creative project management innovative project options to solve problems on time and under budget. New York: McGraw-Hill.

German, T. P., & Barrett, H. (2005). Functional Fixedness in a Technologically Sparse Culture. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 16(1), 1-5.