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Top reads 2008: The mind reader: a profile of Edward de Bono


Mind readingHe's credited with being the father of lateral thinking and claims to have saved companies millions just by changing their mindset. So how is Edward de Bono unlocking this creativity? Louise Druce finds out.

Imagine your organisation could save millions of pounds just by thinking. It sounds a little far-fetched but Edward de Bono is living proof that anything is possible if you put your mind to it in the right way.

De Bono is credited with coining the phrase 'lateral thinking' 40 years ago and today is still regarded as a leader in creative thinking, innovation and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill, amongst companies and governments alike.

Photo of Edward de Bono Photo credit: Mark Brumell:"In Norway, they had an oil problem they had been thinking about for weeks. One of my trainers introduced [creative thinking] techniques and within six minutes they had a solution that saved them $10m."

Edward de Bono

In fact, his teaching techniques have proved so popular, he now has his own army of trainers spreading the word. And, if their feedback is to be believed, the results are impressive. According to de Bono, a company in Arizona saved a whopping $84 million dollars by taking his methods onboard and adopting a different approach to a project; similarly, a Canadian company saved $20m in its first year, while in South Africa, a workshop using lateral thinking tools generated 21,000 new ideas in just one afternoon.

"In Norway, they had an oil problem they had been thinking about for weeks," de Bono continues. "One of my trainers introduced [creative thinking] techniques and within six minutes they had a solution that saved them $10m."

Brain-storming is not enough

Born in Malta, de Bono followed in the family footsteps and was awarded a medical degree at the country's Royal University before going on to gain a degree in psychology and physiology and a DPhil in medicine at Oxford in the UK. During this time he became fascinated by the way the brain functions and wrote The Mechanism of Mind, published in 1969, in which he demonstrated how the nerve networks in the brain formed asymmetric patterns as the basis of perception.

He has gone on to author over 70 books, which have been translated into numerous languages. The appeal of his work, according to his own website biography, is its 'simplicity and practicality' as his methods can be used by anyone from four-year-olds to Nobel laureates. The focus is on 'improving the elements that constitute a perception and the formal design and application of the frameworks required towards innovative and creative action'.

Not only can his methods be found on many a school curriculum across the globe (it's compulsory in Venezuela), they have been sought by the who's who of big business, including Boeing, Nokia, Rolex, Siemens, Nestle, Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young, among others.

Surely the question is, then, if introducing creativity and innovation in the workplace is so simple and can guarantee successful results that could save big bucks, why is it still being stifled or non-existent in the British workplace? De Bono admits there are still a lot of people who aren't aware of his techniques or haven't had the right training so they are doomed to failure. "It's like mathematics or anything else," he explains. "You've got to learn the technique and then apply it."

But there are other forces at work, namely a stubborn and backwards-looking mindset. When speaking at a recent Leaders in London conference, de Bono pointed out many organisations work on the principle that if they collect enough data in their computers, this will set the strategy. "Unless you see the data in different ways, you will be stuck with the same old notions," he argues.

De Bono also accuses people of paying lip service to creativity and innovation. "They talk about it but they don't know a lot about it," he says. "There is the old-fashioned idea that brain-storming is enough or that creativity is just chance – some people are creative, some are not and one day you'll have an idea and there is nothing you can do about it. All this can be changed."

Wearing a different hat

The provocation technique is one of de Bono's favourites. This is where provocative statements are used to build new ideas by exploring the nature of perception and how it limits our creativity. However, the most popular of his methods by far is 'The Six Thinking Hats': an alternative to instigating raging arguments in the meeting room just to get your point across.

"There is the old-fashioned idea that brain-storming is enough or that creativity is just chance."

As the name implies, each team member separates their thinking into six 'hats' or categories, which are identified using a colour system. For example, the white hat signifies information known or needed, while the red hat signifies feelings, hunches and intuition, and the green hat focuses on the creative process. When each hat is introduced, the team switches to this mode of thinking to tap into collective knowledge, rather than being at odds.

"Each person is thinking in parallel, constructively, not all going against each other," de Bono explains. This eliminates egos and, according to some participants, can cut meetings to a quarter or even a tenth of the usual time. It can also be applied on a wider scale, as proved after the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004. "In Sri Lanka, the aid agencies were squabbling and didn't know what to do," says de Bono. "The government invited one of my trainers to teach the six hats and in one day they had a plan of action. Now the government insists all aid agencies have to learn the technique."

Although he has his own followers to teach his methods and despite now being in his 70s, de Bono is still in great demand as an author, speaker and advisor, and clearly still enjoys his work. "My approach to creative thinking has got stronger seeing people do all these things, that they can do these things and it produces results," he says. "I am even more sure [the techniques] work now because there is so much experience with them."

Even with the constant jet-setting, he still manages to find downtime to keep the creative juices flowing. "Obviously I can think while I'm travelling, not when I'm writing," de Bono adds. Although he says when he does switch to author mode, he likes to find somewhere with a view to sit down and write. In January alone, he wrote four books while in Malta. "It fits in," he adds. "Thinking isn't restricted."

Photo of Edward de Bono: Mark Brumell -

This feature was first published in March 2008


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