Edward de Bono: Thinking to create value

  • Edward de Bono:
  • Thinking to create value
  • From the Archives Open Manifesto #7: Kevin Finn in conversation with Dr. Edward de Bono
    as they discuss the value of design and creativity

Kevin Finn: Can you describe, in simple terms, the essence of your approach to thinking?

Edward de Bono: My approach to thinking is based on an understanding of how the brain works. In my medical research I dealt a lot with the complicated systems of the body—glands, kidneys, circulation, everything. I developed theories of self-organizing systems and applied these to the neural networks of the brain. My book “The Mechanism of Mind,” published in 1969, describes this. To put it simply, the brain works as a self-organizing system; it forms patterns. So I explored the question: “What is a logical patterning system?” From that, I developed my approach to thinking.

In your book Lateral Thinking you place a great deal of importance on design. Is this because design is a deliberate act and aligns well with how we should think?

Yes. I put a lot of importance on design, because design is putting together what you have to deliver, in terms of the values you want or provide. Most of our thinking at all levels—school, university, everything—is concerned with analysis. Analysis is concerned with finding the truth: “What is this?” Design, on the other hand, is producing something which isn’t there, or wasn’t there before. Indeed, there’s a huge problem with our thinking in general and at all levels, including at senior levels. The problem relates to a belief that our thinking is concerned with finding the truth. This began in The Middle Ages, where schools, universities, and general thinking were all in the hands of the Church. The Church was interested in finding the truth, in order to prove heretics wrong and to support their belief structure.

So we developed good thinking—finding the truth—which became scientific thinking, which is excellent. But culturally, we never developed thinking for creating value.

So, how do we need to think to produce something that doesn’t yet exist? Design is one particular aspect of that because it concerns itself with creating something that doesn’t yet exist, as opposed to finding the truth, which is always there until we find it.

In your work, you often refer to breaking patterns of traditional thinking. Since design is a very deliberate act, is it correct to say your work seeks to promote and prompt people to think deliberately?

Yes, certainly. That’s why the Chinese are very interested in my work, because they know they need creativity. They’re not going to be creative by being crazy or ‘off the wall.’ They like a sensible, structured approach to creativity, so they like my books and training programmes.

You also place considerable importance on creativity. In your book Lateral Thinking you state: “In order to be able to use creativity one must rid it of this aura of mystique and regard it as a way of using the mind—a way of handling information.” I understand you have been criticized for not offering a definition for creativity. Why are you reluctant to define creativity?

Our general approach to creativity is a belief that it’s not normal, that it’s mysterious, that it’s some strange talent that only certain people have—which we believe most people don’t have—and there’s nothing you can do about it except find people who are creative. That is so ridiculous.

Our general approach to creativity is a belief that it’s not normal, that it’s mysterious that it’s some strange talent that only certain people have—but most people don’t have—and there’s nothing you can do about it except find people who are creative. That is so ridiculous.

I look at creativity as an activity of the brain, an activity with patterned systems. Interestingly, the most important function of the brain, which amazingly philosophers have never mentioned and psychologists pay very little attention to, if any, is humour, because humor indicates the brain is working as a patterning system.

Here is a simple example: A man aged 90 dies and goes down to hell. As he’s wandering around, he sees a friend, also aged 90. His friend has a beautiful young lady sitting on his knee. So, he says to his friend: “Are you sure this is hell, because you seem to be having rather a good time?” His friend looks up and says: “It’s hell all right. I’m the punishment for her.”

[Laughing]

This demonstrates a pattern, a perfectly logical pattern heading towards an end-point. But then a different end-point is introduced, which in hindsight is perfectly logical. If the brain can do that, then there’s an absolute need for creativity because there are points in the brain, which you cannot get to with logic, but once you’re there they are perfectly logical in hindsight. So without creativity you’re never going to get to those points, meaning humor is very, very key—and, as I said, it’s totally neglected.

Now, with regards to offering a definition of creativity, the problem with creativity in the English language is that it’s so wide. It covers artistic creativity, intellectual creativity, etc.

I would define creativity as developing an idea—or project, or product, or whatever it is—which in hindsight is valuable and logical but which you could not have gotten there by logical development. In hindsight, yes, but not with foresight. So, it’s the asymmetry of patterns that defines creativity.

I would define creativity as developing an idea—or project, or products, or whatever it is—which in hindsight is valuable and logical but which you could not have gotten there by logical progression. In hindsight, yes, but not with foresight.

You believe: “Insight, creativity and humour are so elusive because the mind is so efficient.” You go on to describe how this is based on patterns and the objective is to re-pattern the mind. But is this easier said than done? Are we simply hard-wired to resist change?

Now the brain, of course, is designed to use patterns, otherwise life would be incredibly difficult. If you get up in the morning and have 11 pieces of clothing to put on, there are actually over 39 million possible ways of getting dressed. If you tried one every minute of your waking life, you would need to live to be 76 years old doing nothing else except trying ways of getting dressed. So clearly, we should be immensely grateful that the brain establishes routine patterns and uses them.

In general, for almost all our activities, we should be very grateful that the brain does use patterns. But then we also need to find ways of escaping from these patterns, and that is what I’m talking about.

I love the audacity of the opening line in the preface of your book Six Thinking Hats: “The Six Thinking Hats method may be the most important change in human thinking for the past twenty-three hundred years.” You go on to qualify: “That may seem a rather exaggerated claim, but the evidence is beginning to point that way.” The evidence you refer to relates to major corporations like IBM, Siemens and Statoil, who have implemented your methods with great success. Successful outcomes are an obvious benefit to business, but can you share with us some of the tangible benefits businesses can expect from employing your thinking methods?

Yes, yes. I often say Six Thinking Hats may be the most important change in human thinking for the past twenty-three hundred years, because it relates to practical thinking. I say this because of the Greek gang of three (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), whom twenty-three or twenty-four hundred years ago developed logical argument. Again, because of the influence of the Church, we were very happy with logical argument, and we base everything on logical argument whether it’s law courts, parliament, whatever.

So we have that, and it is excellent, but it’s not sufficient. Argument is all about proving your case, so the use of the mind is entirely negative. Technically, it’s simply defending your point of view.

Now, the brain works according to its mood, and there are many other possible moods in the brain, which we never use, for example the constructive mood, the creative mood, and so on. The Six Thinking Hats allows every person at the meeting to use their brain fully, not just for attacking.

What is really interesting—and contrary to expectations—you might think if people use their brain so much more thoroughly in all the different aspects—emotional, creative, etc—then it should take longer to resolve things. Right? In fact, it takes one tenth of the time. A major American bank claimed that using Six Thinking Hats reduced their meeting times to one tenth of what it normally took.

The reason is that, in argument, everyone wants to exert their ego in any little point they pick up to be negative and this produces endless little negative arguments. Whereas, with Six Thinking Hats there is a requirement to be constructive. You have to move something forward. Of course, the Black Hat is there to criticize and to be critical, but that’s only one of the Six Thinking Hats.

The Six Thinking Hats has had many successful outcomes. I once worked with a company, which experienced a lot of staff strikes. They used Six Thinking Hats to reduce the number of strikes to around one quarter of what they had been.

Another example: when Nokia started making mobile phones, they invited me to Helsinki right at the beginning of this transition. At the time it was a timber company making paper—specializing in lavatory paper, I think. I began by talking to a whole group, approximately 70 people. They listened, and they developed Nokia to become the biggest suppliers of mobile phones in the world.

So your work and your thinking tools are a catalyst for change?

Yes. Of course in the case of Nokia, the advantage was that they were entering into a new area so they didn’t have established ideas, or an established business. Of course, this could be interpreted in a different way.

Some might say they were successful because they had a clear idea, which is why they invited me in the first place. This is possible.

In your words: “Culture is concerned with establishing ideas. Education is concerned with communicating those ideas. Both are concerned with improving ideas and bringing them up to date. The only available method for changing ideas is conflict.” Educators like Sir Ken Robinson, and more recently Salman Khan of the Khan Academy, also believe the one-size-fits-all approach to traditional education is incredibly limited and, like you, they prefer a more creative, self-paced approach to learning. In your opinion, is the traditional education system too big, too conservative and too business-oriented to change—is there too much at stake? To use your own terms, is this the difference between the perceived ‘rightness’ and ‘richness’ of education?

The problem with education is it believes it has a responsibility to teach youngsters about the way the world is. But even in that, I think it is deficient.

For instance, in some countries like the United Kingdom, a great deal of time is spent on history—the Tudors, the War of the Roses, etc—but no time at all is spent on the “now story.” Current education doesn’t really focus on how the world works today, how business works, how employment works, how government works. So youngsters may leave school knowing all about history, but not much (if anything) about the world today. That’s one problem.

I believe the business of education is to teach children how the world works. But generally speaking, the impression is that the role of education isn’t to develop the full potential of the skills of children, particularly in relation to skills they would need to improve the world. This is missing. Although, when schools teach my thinking skills tools, it shows significant improvement in all other subjects—between 30 and 100 percent in all other subjects.

When we look at the world today—with continued financial instability, increasingly volatile conflict zones and the real threat of climate change—one would sense our society might have thinking deficiency. But how can these immense and sticky situations achieve better outcomes, considering all the cultural, economic, societal and political nuances involved?

Now, the problem with our regular thinking—and again, this applies to many areas, and universities in particular—is that the approach is on analysis. In a way, this is caveman thinking. When a caveman comes out of a cave, and he sees a red object in the bushes, what is his thinking? He’s thinking: “What is this? Is this an apple, which is good to eat? Is it a poison or something dangerous? Is it something I don’t know?” In other words, his thinking relies on recognition.

Take a doctor in a clinic. They see a patient. The doctor examines the patient. They do some tests. What are they looking for? They are looking to identify a standard situation so that they can then apply a standard treatment.

Virtually all our thinking in school—and thereafter—is to analyze, to find the standard situation, to provide the standard answer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s very useful, but it’s not sufficient. That’s why we find it difficult to make changes

Virtually all our thinking in school—and thereafter—is to analyse, to find the standard situation, to provide the standard answer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s very useful, but it’s not sufficient. That’s why we find it difficult to make change.

It is widely accepted that you are the original innovator and pioneer of new thinking approaches. We now see the emergence of many thinking-oriented approaches, for example Design Thinking, which have led to successful business enterprises based on these thinking concepts. We could confidently argue this trend might not be possible if not for your work. But does this trend encourage you, or are you concerned in any way?

Yes, obviously, I started writing about these things in 1970. Since then, there have been many other approaches. Some of them are based on my works. Some of them are inspired by my work. Some of them are just co-incidental.

Would this trend have been possible without my work? It’s impossible to tell, but I think that my work has had a big influence on the whole trend happening at the moment. I hear from many different fields—people in music and art, among many other areas— about how my work has affected them. Of course, I am concerned about people who—as it were—steal my work and claim it’s theirs. That’s a problem.

But are you encouraged by the general sense that a focus on thinking is becoming more mainstream?

Yes, yes, I am.

When we spoke yesterday you mentioned a new book you’re writing—and which is yet to be published. You have recently turned 82, a wonderful achievement in itself. You are still developing ideas and material, but what do you believe will be the legacy of your life’s work?

My new book will be about ‘thinking to create value’ because, as I say, the Church was only interested in finding ‘the truth.’

Thinking to create value, which I call ‘bonting’—a word that comes from the Latin ‘bonus’ and ‘bonum,’ and of course, my name de Bono. Lets say we are sitting at a meeting and we are analyzing figures, and so on. We could say: “Wait a minute. Let’s do some bonting. Let’s create some value.” Because creating value is important.

I think the legacy of my life work centers around attention to deliberate direct thinking, both in terms of lateral thinking, and creativity, as well as the Six Thinking Hats, and aspects like that. They’re very different from just the analysis of philosophers who were looking at things and putting names on concepts, and so and so.

Even though you’re working on new a book “Bonting”, is it a correct assessment to suggest your work has always been about creating value?

Yes, that’s absolutely true. It is the creation of value which doesn’t yet exist, rather than the discovery of truth. I’m not saying discovery of truth is wrong. It’s excellent, but it’s not enough. That’s why, a few years ago, I invented the word Ebne, (Excellent But Not Enough).

[Both Laughing]

You might clean the floor, and may have done an excellent job—but not enough. We’ve also needed that word for twenty-four thousand years—since the Greek gang of three. Previously, we couldn’t have added it because, if on the other side of the dialectic is ‘truth’, well, if someone was true, you can’t be more true than the truth, right? It had to do with action operations.

The other side of the dialectic is perhaps good wasn’t enough, and it would be very wrong to say, “It’s fine,” when it’s not. But it would be very wrong to say, “It’s wrong and bad,” when it’s not wrong and bad. So we do need a way of saying, “It is excellent but not enough.”

And when you bring in ‘truth,’ there is always the possibility of fanaticism—those people who will not budge because their belief is embedded in a particular truth…

Yes, that’s right! And because with the truth, there’s all the religious connotations; fanaticism means you can’t consider other possibilities. So, my work is about value, rather than truth. That’s not to say I think that the search for truth is wrong. It is correct, it’s excellent—but it’s not enough.

Edward de Bono image credit: Alan Burles / Alamy Stock Photo

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Biography

Dr. Edward de Bono is regarded by many as the leading authority in conceptual and creative thinking and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill. The appeal of his work is its simplicity, practicality and universality—the de Bono methods are simple, practical and powerful. They have been used equally by four year-olds and by top executives of some of the world’s largest corporations, by young people with Down’s Syndrome and Nobel Laureates, to deliver powerful results.

Born in Malta, Dr. Edward de Bono received his initial education at St Edward’s College, Malta, and the Royal University of Malta, where he obtained a degree in medicine. Following this, he then proceeded as a Rhodes Scholar to Christchurch, Oxford, where he gained an honors degree in psychology and physiology and then a D.Phil. in medicine. He holds a Phd from Cambridge, a DDes from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and a LLD from Dundee. He has had faculty appointments at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Harvard and has been hailed as one of the 250 people who have contributed most to mankind.

Dr. Edward de Bono’s entry into the subject of thinking came directly from his early work in medicine with the more complicated interactive systems of the body (glands, kidneys, respiration and circulatory systems) and the need to develop concepts of self-organising information systems. This led to the consideration of behavior in neural networks, (see his book The Mechanism of Mind) and his interest in creative thinking and the development of processes for lateral thinking.

Based on his early research into understanding how the brain works as a self-organising information system, Dr. Edward de Bono designed various frameworks and methods of thinking to broaden and maximize the cognitive, conceptual and creative process. As such, much of his work has been of pivotal influence in the explosion around thinking and creativity and innovation in the last forty years.

De Bono originated many of the concepts and frameworks that are widely used today; Lateral Thinking—which now has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary and Parallel Thinking®, he is equally renowned for his development of the Six Thinking Hats® technique, the CoRT Thinking Programme® and the Direct Attention Thinking Tools (DATT)® framework.

He has written over 70 books and programmes, with translations into 43 languages, has been invited to lecture in 58 countries and has made three television series.

Dr. de Bono’s instruction has been sought by governments, not-for-profit organisations and many of the leading corporations in the world, such as IBM, Boeing, BT (UK), Nokia (Finland), Mondadori (Italy), Siemens (Germany), 3M (Germany), NTT (Japan), GM, Kraft, Nestle, Du Pont, Prudential, Shell, Bosch (Germany), Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young and many others. One of the leading consultancy companies, Accenture, chose him as one of the fifty most influential business thinkers today.

Edward de Bono: Thinking to create value

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