Lateral Thinking: What Is It and Why Is It Important?


Lateral Thinking: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

The late Steve Jobs once made an excellent comment on hiring, which has always resonated with me: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Today, many companies want to hire people who can work autonomously and without being micromanaged, and this is where the ability to think laterally becomes a key skill. In a nutshell, lateral thinking is the ability to look at problems or ideas in a new light, taking a creative approach to finding solutions.   

However, lateral thinking isn’t necessarily a skill which becomes apparent in the recruitment process, more typically after about three to six months of working in a new role. And when applied, it is a skill that can make the difference between a good hire and a great hire.

So when it comes to locating a lateral thinker, what are the signs to look out for?

If you’re hiring graduates or junior employees, the first place to start is the CV, and look for evidence of independent learning or life experience. For example, have they planned a trip around the world or across a continent; moved to a country where English isn’t the first language; set up a small business alongside their other work, or maybe volunteered for a charity?

Typically, we find hires who possess strong lateral thinking skills have had to overcome difficulties along their way to finding your role, independently solving problems and thinking on their feet. If we take the example of a candidate who planned a travelling trip, perhaps they decided to buy and refurbish their own transport, thinking up ideas to keep costs down whilst living on the road.

When it comes to more experienced hires, perhaps they have run projects independently without the support of a wider team or worked in a range of industries before applying to your position? Whilst this candidate may not start with the strongest knowledge of your specific sector, don’t underestimate the power of experience and an original approach.

Candidates with the ability to think laterally will understand how to develop relationships across the business, in order to elicit the right information and deliver results. Having already had to navigate uncharted waters to solve problems, these candidates are able to quickly get to grips with a range of topics, whilst simplifying problems to get up to speed.

If you’re the client rather than the candidate, the need for lateral thinkers will depend on the flexibility of your organisation. People who like to work in a structured way with clear process and procedures might not adapt well to an autonomous environment. Conversely, if you hire someone who likes to work with relative flexibility/creativity in their role they might not respond well to red tape and processes.

Overall, it’s important to note that lateral thinking is a skill which anyone can hone over time with practise. One straightforward opportunity to think laterally in a new role, is when looking at future objectives.

As a candidate joining a new organisation, remember to ask yourself whether the company’s approach to work suits your personality and style. Then if you want and need to adapt, instead of looking to others for advice, this is the perfect opportunity to give lateral thinking a go and allow yourself a chance to rise to the challenge.

Saragossa are a talent provider specialising in the Financial Technology, Financial Operations and Data Science sectors. Our role is to match clients with high calibre candidates. Our work encompasses filling temporary contracts along with building permanent teams and resourcing projects. To find out more, please contact or call 020 7871 3666.