Academia · Science

Thinking Strategies: vertical vs. horizontal

One of my advisers once drew a vertical line on a white sheet of paper and told me, in research, one needs to think vertically. He then continued, explaining, that graduate students should dig deeper and deeper into the problem until a solution is found. Vertical thinking is an analytical and sequential process and it is widely adopted by researchers in the academia because it finds a solution to the problem faster than the horizontal thinking strategy. In addition, it builds more experienced researchers in the field of investigation.

Horizontal thinking, unlike vertical thinking, is to investigate wider not deeper. Howard Gardner calls vertical thinkers the experts and horizontal thinkers the visionaries. Others, use Edward De Bono’s coined term lateral thinking to define horizontal thinking. In general, lateral thinking means being creative and thinking outside the box.

Each thinking strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. Therefore it is good to know how we think and how different we think. People who think vertically are usually concerned in how to solve the problem. They also usually know everything about something. On the other hand, people who think horizontally are usually concerned in why a particular problem occurs. They know something about everything, related to their field.

Most outstanding research results are the ones that produced from interdisciplinary fields. Investigating one field to find an answer will solve a problem but making links between two fields or more to find an answer will lead to a breakthrough solution. This is why horizontal thinking is linked to breakthrough research.

The figure below depicts the differences between these two thinking methods. Unlike vertical thinking, horizontal thinking requests more time, data, and background study. While both concepts produce a solution to the problem, their outputs might not be the same. Vertical thinking discovers a solution faster than horizontal thinking, but its solution’s quality might not be as good as the horizontal thinking.

vertical vs horizontal thinking1


13 thoughts on “Thinking Strategies: vertical vs. horizontal

  1. Good post Malik, if both can lead to a solution for specific problem then both can be consider good way of thinking, but it dose matter when to use each of them, if the time is an important factor then the Vertical thinking is the way to go, if time is less important then horizontal thinking is preferable, I also believe that some problems specially in the medical filed the only way to go is the horizontal thinking like searching for a cure for cancer. It just my opinion


    1. Tele,
      You are right one can’t replace the other each has it is usage. Your cancer cure example is a good example of the horizontal thinking and I think this method is being used in the medical research.


  2. wow man this post is too smart for me.. i guess when ever i do a reaserch i just take the diagonal way .. ) which is starting on track and ending god knows wher..


  3. Im left-handed and will speak on behalf of the majority of the left handed community when I say that as southpaw’s we are hard wired to think horizontally and must appreciate vertical thinkers and utilize them.


    1. So this may explain why some people believe that left-handed people are smart because they think horizontally. Not to underestimate vertical thinking but I am more into horizontal thinking I believe it has great potentials.


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