The next time you’re faced with a challenge that requires a creative solution, why not try exploring both “horizontal” and “vertical” approaches?

The late Earl Nightingale, in his audiotape series “The Essence of Success,” suggests that when we’re faced with a challenge that requires a creative solution, we should pursue both “horizontal” and “vertical” solutions. This creative problem-solving technique combines tried-and-true solutions with truly novel ideas, making a very effective tool in your personal ideation arsenal.

First, think vertically

Vertical solutions are based on existing ideas or knowledge — solutions that others have already had some success with.

To paraphrase Thomas Edison, the world outside of your industry, market or profession is full of existing ideas that people have never fully capitalized upon, which may be adapted to your specific need or challenge.

When you’re doing “vertical” research, Web search engines can help you to find articles, white papers, case histories and other documents that demonstrate how other people have tackled challenges similar to yours. Likewise, you can use online discussion forums to ask others for advice on how they solved a similar problem.

Thinking vertically is something like drilling deeper in an existing oil well, or mining an existing seam in a gold mine that may already be just about tapped out. Digging deeper into known, familiar territory carries little risk, but is unlikely to result in a breakthrough idea.

Most of us tend to rely on safety and security of tried-and-true solutions — the so-called conventional wisdom so typified by the expression, “That’s the way it’s always been done…”. It takes courage to step out in a fresh, nerw direction.

Next, horizontal thinking

Next, try thinking about your challenge horizontally — in other words, come up with a variety of ideas by thinking in totally new directions. This is where creative brainstorming techniques can be very useful. They whack you out of your familiar, rutted paths of thinking behind, and can help you to jump-start your thinking in new, creative directions.

To use our oil drilling metaphor, vertical thinking is like digging exploratory wells in different locations, in hopes of finding new deposits of fresh, untapped ideas. Horizontal thinking tends to be more risky, but is more likely to lead to a breakthrough idea that could yield significant value to you or your company.


In real world problem-solving situations, a combination of both approaches usually produces the best results. This technique ensures that you tap the best existing ideas and information, while also generating novel, untested ideas, increasing the likelihood that you’ll uncover the ideal solution to your problem or challenge. In fact, creativity experts suggest that you gather as much information as possible about your existing challenge or opportunity (vertical thinking) before you begin brainstorming novel solutions (horizontal thinking).