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Critical Thinking

How is Critical Thinking Different from Analytical or Lateral Thinking?

February 21, 2014 by Dr. Jon Warner in Critical Thinking

How is Critical Thinking Different from Analytical or Lateral Thinking?

Critical thinking as a term is often mentioned as a key skill for employees to have at all levels of the organization but many people do not fully understand it or confuse it with the related but different terms of analytical and lateral thinking. In this brief article let’s therefore look at what these latter two terms mean and then end on why critical thinking takes us further.

So what is analytical thinking?

Analytical thinking is a thinking process or skill in which an individual has the ability to scrutinize and break down facts and thoughts into their strengths and weaknesses. It involves thinking in thoughtful, discerning ways, in order to solve problems, analyze data, and recall and use information. It involves the following main activities:

  • Focusing on facts and evidence
  • Analyzing data or information or systems
  • Dissecting data/information and the analysis of complex things into simpler constituents
  • Reasoning – thinking that is coherent and logical
  • Partitioning, breakdown – an analysis into mutually exclusive categories
  • Eliminating extraneous data or  analysis of a problem into alternative possibilities followed by the systematic rejection of unacceptable alternatives
  • Analyzing trends or the analysis of changes over time 

Lateral thinking involves:

Lateral thinking involves solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic or simple analysis. It involves the following main activities:

  • Reviewing issues and problems in terms of what might be missing or absent
  • Looking at an issue or problem from a variety of different or unusual angles
  • Reversing an issue or problem/challenge to look for a new solution
  • Finding and evaluating more than one potential solution to an issue or challenge
  • Rearranging a problem to see if new angles may be discovered
  • Delaying judgment and maintaining an open mind
  • Removing any stereotypical or cliché patterns of thought or knowledge

Critical thinking involves:

Critical Thinking consists of mental processes of discernment, analysis and evaluation, especially as it relates to what we hear by way of points that are raised or issues which are put forward for discussion. It includes the process of reflecting upon a tangible or intangible item in order to form a sound judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense. Hence, Critical Thinking is most successful when it effectively blends our natural senses or feelings with our logic and intuition, all applied in a systematic manner. It involves the following main activities:

  • Deeply evaluating how far information we are given is current, up-to-date and accurate.
  • Checking for bias or unsubstantiated assumptions.
  • Evaluating how far the evidence or opinions presented genuinely proves the point(s) claimed.
  • Weighing up opinions, arguments or solutions against appropriate (usually logical) criteria.
  • Making inferences from the data/information and filling in “gaps”.
  • Taking a clear line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion.
  • Checking whether the evidence/argument really support the conclusions.

So, in summary we might say that analytical thinking mainly aims to review the data/information we are presented with (for relevance, patterns, trends etc.), Lateral thinking aims to put data/information into a new or different context (in order to generate alternative answers or solutions) and Critical thinking aims to make an overall or holistic judgment about the data/information which is as free from false premises or bias as much as possible. Although there is clearly therefore much overlap between all three activities (and they certainly complement one another), each one as a unique focus and where there is time and the needs are significant enough should be deployed in the above order.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Mac BogertFebruary 21, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Great piece. I’ll be doing a piece on critical thinking next month, and this helps me clarify the differences between analysis and synthesis as thinking frames.

  2. Jon WindustFebruary 22, 2014 at 5:35 am

    We can gain greatly from a time/cost perspective by relying on information already sorted and classified by others. Particularly those we trust. We couldn’t live our daily lives without it. This is a double edged sword though, because it also makes us susceptible to bias and unsubstantiated claims. This makes critical thinking a particularly important.

  3. LizJune 8, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Great post, thank you!

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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