Dr. Edward de Bono on creative thinking
May 02, 2008
If you are not aware of the psychologist and physician Dr. Edward de Bono, then you owe it to yourself to at least explore his contributions. I knew of Dr. de Bono from his book Six Thinking Hats, but recently my interest in his work was renewed when I spoke with an executive of a famous multinational firm in Hong Kong who said they'd really benefited from some of his methods. Dr. de Bono says that so-called Western thinking, using analysis, judgement, and argument, is largely concerned with "what is." This is all well and good, he says, but it's not sufficient. There is another aspect of thinking which is concerned with "what can be." This type of thinking involves creative thinking and "designing a way forward." Dr. de Bono is credited with coining the terms Lateral Thinking and Parallel Thinking (See Dr. de Bono's site for detailed definitions). Lateral thinking is about changing concepts and perception and reasoning about a problem in ways that would not ordinarily be possible with traditional forms of logic. The idea is to get away from predictable, expected ways of thinking about problems using techniques that help people approach problems in very different ways. Lateral thinking methods can lead to creative and so-called "outside the box" thinking. One of the techniques is Provocation which de Bono touches on in the short video below. (Watch YouTube video.)
Summary of some of Dr. de Bono's thoughts from video
• If our brain is a computer, then the software we're using was largely designed 2,400 years ago. We've done virtually nothing about thinking since the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (In his book Six Thinking Hats de Bono suggests that thinking systems based on analysis, judgement, and logical argument are excellent in the same way that the left front wheel of a car is excellent. That is, there is nothing at all wrong with it, but it is not sufficient).
• Creativity is a skill, not just a matter of individual talent (therefore it can be learned). But it's not merely a matter of inspiration, etc.
• Creativity is more than just being different. The creative idea is not just different (for the sake of being different). Creative ideas must necessarily have or add value.
• People are reluctant to be creative out of fear of making "a mistake." Problem is (at least in the English language) we don't have a good word to describe creative ideas that just don't work...except to call them "mistakes." That is, we do not have a good word for this: "Fully justified venture which for reasons beyond our control did not succeed." If you do not succeed with your creative idea this is called a "mistake." And people generally like to avoid "mistakes." (We need a better word!)
• Provocation is one of the methods of lateral thinking. Provocations runs opposite to our normal logical thinking. Provocations put you on a new path and open up new ideas (even though this may not seem obvious at first).
• Thinking outside the box. Escaping from, breaking out of the box to change concepts, change perceptions, change constraints and rules. Developing an idea that would not have been expected in our usual behavior and our usual thinking.
Six Thinking Hats
Dr. de Bono is perhaps most famous to many people for his Six Thinking Hats method, a method designed to help people break away from traditional argument or adversarial thinking. From Edward de Bono's website: "Adversarial thinking completely lacks a constructive, creative or design element. It was intended only to discover the 'truth' not to build anything." Parallel thinking methods help two or more parties, then, engage in more cooperative and coordinated forms of thinking that lead to creative solutions. Rather than explaining the Six Hats in detail here, simply watch the video below where Dr. de Bono, in his typical de Bono analog style, presents his ideas to the audience (an effective method for him). The book is useful, but you can get the basics of the method from the materials available online. You might consider using the Six Thinking Hats method in the preparation stage of your next big group presentation project.
• Edward de Bono
• de Bono Consulting
de Bono is so 1970s, "I'm OK, you're OK" era bunk. The most succinct critique of his labored, outdated work was in the UK Guardian newspaper a few years back: in response to his quoting the cliché that Eskimos have 27 (or so) words for snow, the critic commented "we only need one word for this: bullshit!"
P.S. Garr - I'm a big fan of you and PZ, but this is not worthy.
Posted by: Nigel | May 02, 2008 at 10:54 PM
Hi Nigel -- Thanks for sharing your feelings -- which hat, btw, were you wearing when you wrote that? ;-)
Obviously, I think there *are* still things we can learn from people who made their contributions many years ago. Firms still pay big money to hear his ideas. My only problem with the Six Hats book is that (and others have said this) it really could have been presented in a 20-page pamphlet. The concept is simple and easy to understand, yet it is quite effective. Personally I would never say "put some yellow hat thinking on that" but as a manager and facilitator I can see how leveraging his simple concepts would work.
I hear where you're coming from, but many people (certainly under 30) have not been exposed to de Bono yet. I think it is worth sharing... Thanks again.
Posted by: garr Reynolds | May 02, 2008 at 11:20 PM
You have to have worked in a company where the response to every creative idea was, "Well if that were the business we were in that would be a great idea," to appreciate the full power of de Bono's advice.
I particularly liked the discussion about how to deal with black hat thinking. Even if you don't use the hat vocabulary, I agree with Garr that this is a very useful refresher in how to effectively stimulate creativity even in the toughest situations. Being able to recognize a pattern and having through in advance how to deal with it is very useful.
Posted by: Swamp Fox | May 03, 2008 at 01:55 AM
"Nearling" is much more fun than "mistake"
Posted by: Pascal Van Cauwenberghe | May 03, 2008 at 03:56 AM
The main issue I have with de bono is that his work has been focused at creative problem solving rather than creativity per se.
Over simplifying something is useful to us all in business or leadership positions as it enables us to take positive actions rapidly, problems starts when we forget that we have oversimplified.
Passing maths tests with flying color is a skill but intelligence isn't in the same way as solving problems creatively is a skill but creativity isn't.
For a thorough look at creativity for all of us who have encountered in organisations the creativity challenges described by others above, I would recommend 'Managing creative people' by Gordon Torr.
Thanks Garr for starting another interesting discussion.
Posted by: Emmanuel Gobillot | May 03, 2008 at 05:13 PM
my experience with the hats are that people love it when they first hear about it, but unless they put the stuff into practice (which is unfortunately 'tough' because it's so unusual and many ppl just feel outright *weird* if called upon to 'wear different hats') the methods become not much more than an event they recall listening about.
de Bono workshops are quite important to at least get ppl into the practice of actually *thinking* in a focused, non-distracted manner. maybe after a few rounds they actually begin doing it in office, at home, etc.
Posted by: alwyn | May 04, 2008 at 03:20 AM
This is a great post! It was especially refreshing to see the simple presentation with an overhead projector from years ago. Dr. de Bono was drawing PZ plides as he spoke (with some bullet points though, but you could not read them before he had said them).
And think about the Six hats and Presentation Zen. Garr is clearly using the GREEN HAT and thinking outside the box of [- click to add (bulleted) text] . Garr is "Escaping from, breaking out of the box to change concepts, change perceptions, change constraints and rules."
Most people are so used to the box that they fill it with their WHITE HAT information and resist change with their BLACK HAT. And death by powerpoint is not over yet.
But my RED HAT signals me times are changing - simplicity is becoming a trend.
Posted by: Samuli | May 04, 2008 at 09:31 AM
It was really interesting to see Edward de Bono featured on your site on the same day I read in the New York Times that "...brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks".
This "jumping to a new synaptic path" insight was a cornerstone of de Bono's Lateral Thinking process (yes, the 70's bunk). Science is just catching up.
Re: the 6 Hats - the irony about the hats is that it is the very judgment and self-consciousness that people have about using them that hinders their ability to think creatively. Once you get past your own ego and it is actually a very powerful technique (or 80's bunk depending on your point of view of course).
Re: the overhead projector presentation method - I have watched him keep an audience of a couple of hundred people enthralled for 2 days with that method. Tough to do that with Powerpoint... Eventually, though the method affected his eyesight and he had to present in sunglasses.
Re: His problem solving focus - de Bono used to lament that North American business was so focussed on problem solving that his words were always reframed into a problem statement. There's lots of evidence that musicians and other artists used his techniques.
Re: simplicity - he published a book called Simplicity in...1999. (but that's just 90's bunk, right?)
I did some work with de Bono in the 90's - hence the past tense of the post. If you look at the breadth of his life's work its quite astounding.
Posted by: Roger | May 06, 2008 at 03:49 AM
as always an insightful and provocative post. Thanks. Reminded me to get those deBono books from the back of my bookshelf, dust down and re-read. I've always loved the metaphor of the coloured hats 'roles' ... but I work in the theatre so I would!
Posted by: Kate Foy | May 06, 2008 at 06:40 AM
I must admit that I like the idea of the six hats and find it very useful. That said, I, like many people I've presented the idea to, find it a bit clumsy to make work in reality.
Less sophisticated is the Disney approach, which works in the same way, but using only three 'hat's - Dreamer, Engineer, Critit. Okay so it's not as sophisticated but I find it more useful because it's more easily grasped and applied by us and the people we present it to.
Posted by: simonr - Curved Vision Presentations | May 09, 2008 at 07:07 PM
Thanks to Pascal Van Cauwenberghe for pointing out the distinction between creativity and problem solving. While the ideas of de Bono and others may be helpful in teaching people how do think more flexibly, there is hardly a shred of respectable evidence suggesting that these kinds of "creativity training" programs have produced anything more creative than the personal enrichment of the gurus who promote them. There are, on the contrary, some interesting studies in the psychology of creativity that indicate that the teaching of problem solving can actually inhibit the likelihood of more creative outcomes. For more on this, see my book "Managing Creative People".
Posted by: Gordon Torr | May 12, 2008 at 09:52 PM
Nigel -you call it 'bunk'. This is a nice but soft word.
In fact, it is not bunk. I have personally been studying this for over 4 years at my own cost and time - at 10 hours per day. I am well educated.
1. De Bono found "functionalism" before there was such a word.
2. De Bono found "New Sciences" - now a multi-million dollar project in Arizona, before anyone else knew of the existence of self-organizing systems.
3. De Bono's work has been studied in control-like way against many other thinking projects, and comes out as the best -beating "Harvard's own Project Zero". This was extensively written up at James Cook University in Australia, by John Edward[or is it Edwards], PhD.
4. De Bono did not "go the way of other 70s psychological theories" but went and continues to go from strength to strength.
5. If you actually bother to use the thinking tools -then immediately you will see the "huge" advantage and potential of it.
6. Even the more "creative" thinking tools like "random word input" technique is used by non-De Bono creativitity consultants.
Moreover, it makes perfect sense.
7. De Bono is NOT a replacement for logic and critical thinking; and he never said he was. He was clear that there is this "other type of thinking" - which is the ability to "generate ideas".
8. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for showing that man is prone to many biases - such as "home bias". One way of handling this is critical thinking. Another way is "lateral thinking" - to generate (other/alternative) ideas. Lateral thinking is much more fun, and for those not skilled in critical thinking, much more easy. Furthermore, for someone like me - BOTH methods compliment each other - which is exactly what De Bono has been saying.
9. There is no doubt in my mind, that de Bono is the greatest thinker that has ever lived. He speculation (functionalism) have largely turned out to be surprisingly correct.
10. HATS: is very powerful and easy. Someone on this board said that he prefers Disney's 3 hats.
Firstly, no one was using Disney's method except Disney. By simply and directly calling it "hats" [De Bono] the "hat" method - whether 3 or more, is much more easy to "get" and use.
Secondly, 3 hats is not sufficient. 6 is optimal. However, for those that learn hats -then you will realize that you are at liberty to use "up to and including" 6, but have no compulsion to do so. It depends upon the nature of the thinking task.
I hope I have been persuasive. I actually think I know more than de Bono, but may not. I do know one thing though: this man is the greatest genius that has ever lived. I state this because I have also been studying others - and though all are great [and indeed it may be hard to truly objectively compare them]: Einstein, Mozart, Da Vinci, Newton,Plank, etc. - de Bono is
 most practical;
 most fun;
 can be most easily learnt from anyone of any age or any background
 can be used for anything , and frankly should be used for almost everything.
 de BOno's method "click/fit-in" with all others. For example: Newton's math is very useful,but de Bono "fits in"; whereas Newton is not used for everything (e.g. not used to make management decisions outside technical field of application).
Posted by: Chuck | May 16, 2008 at 07:56 PM
Nigel and the Guardian.
1. The Guardian wrote a deliberately fascicious article on de Bono.
2. de Bono answers back on his own website -and in detail points out each Guardian mistake.
3. It is very easy to "negatively criticize" [i.e. this is not even "objective critical thinking"] -but another matter to take time to understand.
4. In reality: de Bono has a HUGE worldwide following; has out-published most in all of human history, and remember such "publishing" has been read by many MANY more people than others. For example, it can be argued that Einstein published 300+ works,but "how many have read even ONE of Einstein's works?". My answer: "Relatively few in contrast to de Bono's HUGE following".
Note: Above I am not denigrating Einstein. I am making the point that de Bono is a genius amongst genius -and my own bias is that he is the greatest if 'practicality', 'usablility' and 'benefit' is taken into account [all or one].
Posted by: chuck again | May 16, 2008 at 08:03 PM
Evidence for creativity?
1. Simon above writes that there is evidence that these techniques inhibit creative people. That is absolutely incorrect. As a person looking into this for 4 years, it is not 99% incorrect, but 100% incorrect.
2. The objective of these methods is to give the person "impetus" to produce ideas. It is as simple as that.
The method for doing that is by giving people a "framework" so it is
 easier and  people wantonly use it.
An analogy to this is 'time management'.
Anyone can (somewhat) attempt to manage their time without a formal time management strategy. Many do.
However, those that learn and implement deliberate time management strategies find themselves:
 being much more disciplined;
 therefore having "more time" to do "more of those things that they enjoy" [e.g. more time with family for the busy executive that wants to earn lots. Without such a strategy for busy execs that love work: work takes over social/family hours. It is all a thing of the mind].
Similarly de Bono has been stating that a structured, disciplined thinking "structure" ironically frees one up to indeed generate more ideas in a much shorter period of time (e.g. 3 minutes only) so that one can more effective move towards that direction.
BTW - it must be re-emphasized that one can STILL use any other method "too" [although I do not. I love and use lateral thinking - because it is the simplest, easiest and frankly in my opinion - the best].
Posted by: chuck | May 16, 2008 at 08:15 PM