Are You Thinking Horizontally?

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu

I am currently taking a class titled Entrepreneurship: Principles and Practice a Company Simulator. We just wrapped up the customer development module. Bernard Bell, currently Managing Director at Urban Media Solutions (UMS), was the teacher of this module. He kept harping on the importance of thinking horizontally rather than vertically and the impact it can have on your life both for the success of customer development and marketing, but also your own personal development.question

A company is not a company without customers. Customers have issues and struggles that they need you to solve. Sometimes these issues are ones customer do not even realize they have and others are looking for help. Better solutions and creative processes can be discovered only when you break out of your comfort zone of knowledge and try and step into someone else’s shoes to better understand their motivations.

Vertical thinking uses your knowledge and insights from personal experiences and from the thoughts and feelings of people just like you. However, horizontal thinking, attempts to disrupt and reinvent that type of thinking by stepping out of one’s comfort zone and looking outside yourself and those you know. Stepping outside of the customer development world, thinking horizontally gives you the ability to invite yourself to understand other people and what drives them, irritates them and really what they are all about.


Horizontal thinking allows you to use your critical and creative skills to develop an innovative solution. I don’t think this way of thinking means you have to understand everyone, but you should be open and intrigued about the possibility.

Professor Bell used an example in class where over the weekend he met a young paraplegic man in the airport. He stopped him and started talking to him asking him about his life. The young man was on his way to Alabama to tryout for a professional wheelchair basketball team. He had been in an accident where everyone else involved was killed. He said all he wants to do is be a professional wheelchair basketball player. Professor Bell understood he made assumptions about this young man and would never understood him if he didn’t spark this conversation.

People make assumptions about everyone, whether you mean to or not. Whether it is based on the color of their skin, hair color, ethnicity, gender, physical ability, everyone judges. I do not think making assumptions and gathering insights you observe is wrong as long as you allow yourself to check them and step outside of your comfort zone and hear someone’s story, understand if you are right.

Horizontal thinking requires you to look beyond yourself and understand other people and what makes them tick. Everyone is different, it should be celebrated and the only way to do that is to get out and learn about people from people.


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