Originally published in Business & Technology, 1998.

The Thinker’s Thinker

Edward de Bono believes his creative thinking techniques can help us shape the future. James Mortleman picks his brains…

Most people’s experience of lateral thinking is limited to boozy, late-night attempts at fathoming out why there is a dead man in the middle of an empty field wearing a back-pack, or why the woman who lives on the top floor of a tower block only takes the lift half-way up.

But the kind of thinking that might help you solve these puzzles (he’s a skydiver whose parachute failed to open, she’s a midget who can’t reach the buttons for the upper floors) is also being employed by some of the world’s top companies, as well as by schools across the world and even by tribal villagers in developing countries.

Dr Edward de Bono, the inventor of lateral thinking, designs what he calls ‘software for the brain’ - practical systems and processes to help us use our grey matter more effectively. “The software we use for the human brain is way below potential,” he says. “In some areas it’s actually dangerous - in the sense of our adversarial system of argument exacerbating conflict. Indeed, much of my work is used in mediation across the world.”

Traditionally, when people discuss ideas, they take up opposing points of view, or critically examine them in order to reach a ‘right or wrong’ judgment. This practice is deeply ingrained in our traditions of debate (just look at Parliament and the judiciary) and, consequently, our way of thinking.

But society hasn’t questioned this method since Socrates and Plato first proposed it circa 400BC. Most of us are taught that debate and critical analysis are the highest forms of intellectual inquiry. After all, they’ve served the human race pretty well up to now, haven’t they? Maybe, but de Bono thinks they have become severely limiting. “In many areas of society, including politics and academia, it’s enough to defend your point of view. There’s no pressure to change, to innovate, to design or keep up,” he says.

“The information age is over. We can get more or less all the information we want. The new bottleneck is getting value out of that information. Our traditions of thinking are based on finding out what is - what is the truth, what is the situation, and so on - through analysis, judgement and standard categories. The shift now needs to be much more towards design - meaning, how we put together the concepts we want to deliver value, how we support those concepts with IT, and so on.

“In 1992 I wrote a book called  Sur/petition about going beyond competition in business. Research published in the Harvard Business Review at the beginning of last year showed that those companies which focused on competition did badly, and those which focused on value creation and Sur/petition did well. Competition is just the baseline - you just stay in the race, keep up - you don’t actually get ahead.”

Which is why the business community (which knows all too well that success today relies on constant change and innovation) is so receptive to his ideas: “Business is perhaps the only sector of society that is genuinely interested in creative thinking. Perhaps that might be for the wrong reasons - for exploitation and for profit. I never set out to be a business writer, but business came to me and said ‘this makes sense - we need it’.”

De Bono coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ in 1967 to describe a system he had devised to make it easier to think about problems creatively. “Lateral thinking is for changing concepts and perceptions,” he wrote. “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

Coming from a background in medicine and psychology, his ideas were based on how the brain works at a fundamental level. In his 1969 book The Mechanism of Mind, de Bono explored the idea of the brain as a self-organising information system.

Without going into technical details, when the mind is presented with new pieces of information, it tries to fit them into existing, familiar frameworks - manifested in the brain as patterns of nerve networks. “The natural tendency of the mind is to be non-creative,” he says,  “to form and recognise standard patterns.”

Lateral thinking was designed to give people an escape route from these standard patterns, to cut across them and form new ones. De Bono has since honed and developed many specific, practical techniques for doing this. These include the deliberate introduction into a discussion of random concepts and provocative ideas, and his Six Hats method of ‘parallel thinking’ (see box).

“I use the phrase ‘serious creativity’ to contrast what I call ‘crazitivity’ - the idea that if it’s off-the-wall, different and bizarre, it’s creative. My point is that, no, creativity in the end must be perfectly logical and practical. It’s also meant to be a contrast with the kind of attitude that says ‘let’s all sit around, take our ties off, have fun, and good ideas will emerge’. Some do, certainly - but not very many.”

He is at pains to point out that, unlike some more airy-fairy advocates of creative thinking, his ideas are based very firmly in reality - and on how our minds actually work at a neurological level. “Probably the leading physicist in the world, Professor Murray Gell-Mann - who won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for discovering the quark - read The Mechanism of Mind and told me I had been writing about these things 10 years before mathematicians were looking at chaos and complexity [the mathematics that models the behaviour of self-organising systems such as the mind].”

“Even today,” he adds, “I sometimes get letters from people in the computer world who say that what they’re working on now was in my book in 1969.”

He is certainly not shy about talking about his successes: “Last year, I had two letters on the same day. One was from the head of research at Siemens, by far the biggest company in Europe, saying they were using my Six Hats method very successfully. The other was from a young man on an aid mission in Cambodia to drill for water, only the villagers weren’t interested. He happened to be reading one of my books at the time and started to teach them thinking skills. The villagers became so enthusiastic that they said this was far more important than drilling for water, so the whole mission changed to teaching thinking. He’s since been invited out to Afghanistan and Vietnam to do the same.”

The idea that thinking is more important than drinking may be a little hard to swallow, but there are certainly a lot of people who take de Bono’s methods very seriously. Companies using them include IBM, BT, Federal Express, AT&T and Texas Instruments.

He cites impressive testamonials: “Siemens said its development time was reduced by 50% after introducing my methods. Another large company told me meetings that used to take 20 days now take just two.

“Japanese-owned, Irish-run electronics company Alps started voluntary thinking lessons on the shop floor and the staff’s ideas saved the company so much money that they’re now paid extra wages if they attend the lessons.

“The brainpower of staff is companies’ most underused asset. I would go as far as to say that if any manager under-used capital in the way most under-use the the thinking of their employees, they’d be instantly sacked.”

Talking to de Bono, one gets the impression that his constant desire to point out successes such as these is less about sales pitch and more about self-justification. This may be partly because, in his native Britain (de Bono is from an Anglo-Maltese family and is based in London) his work has not earned him the same level of recognition as it has in many other parts of the world.

He spends much of his time in Australia, where he is extremely well-known. “In fact, about two years ago there was a tongue-in-cheek article in the country’s leading newspaper about why I should be king,” he says. “People thought it it was a good idea,” he adds with a chuckle.

“I like Australia; it’s a great place. Australians are maverick spirits who like new thinking. I have an island in Queensland where I hold creative retreats and so on. In fact, next week the dairy farmers of Australia are coming up there.” So Aussies can presumably expect some very innovative milk marketing in the coming months.

But it’s not only foreign businesses which are more receptive to de Bono’s ideas. In 1972 he established CoRT (the Cognitive Research Trust), a charitable organisation devoted to the teaching of his thinking techniques in schools.

“I would say about 80% of what’s taught in education is irrelevant,” he says. “Education has never been designed - it’s just grown by evolution from the days when a few notaries and scribes needed to learn to read and write to know the laws.”

Britain has shown little interest in de Bono’s CoRT programme, but in New Zealand it’s on the national curriculum. It’s also used widely in Malaysia, Australia, Singapore and Canada, and is currently being investigated by the Italian government.

But for all his self-promotion, de Bono claims not to be a missionary for his ideas. “I have a general view towards improving the thinking of the world, but in terms of going out and banging on doors, I personally don’t have time.”

Others do, however. His brother maintains an Internet site for him (www.edwdebono.com), which includes 600-700 pages about his work and on which de Bono writes a weekly message for acolytes of new thinking.

As for not having time to bang on doors, it’s hardly surprising. He is a prolific writer, performs at conferences all over the world, and to relax he likes designing games. “Last year I designed maybe the world’s first social justice game, where you can’t win by winning and if you try too hard you lose.”

He has even made a film about the future, entitled 2040. “It was made before lunch one day in the world’s oldest film studio in Copenhagen. It’s really a series of concepts that might happen between now and the year 2040 The purpose was to be provocative - to show that these are possible concepts that might emerge.

“For example, there is an interesting animal called a prairie vole. When prairie voles of the opposite sex meet, a chemical is released in their brains which locks each onto the other in perpetual self-obsession. So I say we could probably isolate this chemical, and through an initial computer selection dating, people could meet, have a sniff of the vole factor and be locked onto one another in mutual obsession forever.

“People have very different reactions to this proposal, but the point is that with creative thinking the future can, to a certain extent, be designed - rather than us relying totally on evolution.”

So what future would de Bono like to see designed? “I’d like to see an end to the adversarial argument system and much more direct attention paid to constructive thinking. We are wasting so much human potential. Even very simple people have an incredible untapped capacity for thinking.”

And, in a tale somewhat reminiscent of a scenario you might find in a lateral thinking puzzle, he’s off again: “One of my teachers works in a platinum mine in South Africa, teaching thinking to totally illiterate miners. The effect on their lives has been amazing. One miner said: ‘This de Bono fellow must have three wives - because I’ve got three wives and they used to make my life hell, but now I’ve taught them these thinking tools I’ve had peace for the last six months.’”

BOX:  Get your thinking hats on…

It’s all very well coming up with innovative ideas, but what if your superiors are all too ready to jump on them with criticisms and dismiss them? It was partly this problem that led Edward de Bono to follow up his development of ‘lateral thinking’ with what he calls ‘parallel thinking’.

His Six Thinking Hats method separates out six modes of thinking, each represented by a different coloured hat. “The white hat is the search for information; the red hat is expression of intuitions, feelings or emotions without any need to justify or explain; the black hat is caution and criticism; the yellow hat is a focus on benefits and value; the green hat is new ideas, alternatives and possibilities; and the blue hat is like the conductor of the orchestra, the manager of the process,” he explains.

“What happens now is you get much faster thinking, much more constructive thinking because the black, critical hat is only one of the modes. If someone jumps on your idea, you can now say: ‘Fine that’s the black hat, now what’s the yellow hat on this?’ - meaning fine, those dangers exist, but let’s look at the values.”

Select Bibliography:

Six Thinking Hats (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013784-X)
Lateral Thinking For Management (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013780-7)
Sur/petition (HarperCollins, ISBN 0-88730-543-1)
I Am Right, You Are Wrong (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-012678-3)
The Mechanism of Mind (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013784-X)

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