Some big ideas have become commonplace, and everyone understands them. Others have become commonplace terms, which we often misuse. Lateral Thinking is one example of the latter. Yet it’s had a big impact over the last fifty years and will, I suspect, continue to do so over the next fifty.
Lateral Thinking is the brainchild of Maltese thinker and educator, Edward de Bono. It first appeared in his short 1967 book, ‘The Use of Lateral Thinking’. And it’s currently still in print, as ‘Lateral Thinking: An Introduction’(US|UK). But since then, he’s written a whole library on this and related topics.
Creativity is all about having brilliant new ideas.
Go on… Have one now.
Creative ideas don’t just come to us when we want them. The whole process is mysterious, and cannot be called up on demand. Or can it?
Yes, it can. Or so said William Gordon and George Prince. If you know how to, you can find creative solutions when you need them. And their research into the creative process led them to a methodology still used today: Synectics.
William (Bill) Gordon was born in 1919.He attended the University of Pennsylvania, but it is not clear whether he graduated. Between 1950 and 1960, Gordon led the Invention Design Group at consulting firm Arthur D Little & Co. He was, himself, a prolific inventor, with numerous patents to his name.
Synectics had its origins just after the Second World War. Gordon started studying how individuals and groups act creatively. This became more intensive and systematic, leading to him forming the Invention Design Group within Arthur D Little. There, he helped set up synectics groups within several client companies.
It was while leading this team, that Gordon met future Synectics co-founder, George Prince. With two further colleagues, they left Arthur D Little in 1960 to found Synectics Inc. There they pursued further research, developing and selling their model for how to run a creative process.
However, Gordon did not remain at Synectics Inc for long. He left to found Synectics Education Systems, to promote problem‑solving and education based on the use of metaphor.
Gordon died in 2003.
George Prince was born in 1918 and grew up in New York State. He attended college at Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College, graduating in Geology. The second World War saw him serving as a junior officer in the US Navy, in the North Atlantic.
Upon his return, Prince joined an advertising company in Rochester, where he rose to VP. He then learned of the work of Arthur D Little’s Invention Design Group, led by William Gordon. He joined the Arthur D Little company in the 1950s to be a part of that group.
In 1960, he, Gordon and two other colleagues left Arthur D Little to found Synectics Inc (now Synecticsworld). This company researched, developed and promoted their creative problem-solving methodology, Synectics.
Prince remained with the company for most of his, life, as Chairman. In 1970, he wrote ‘The Practice of Creativity‘, which remains in print. He died in 2009.
Synectics is a rich methodology for solving problems creatively. However, the principles are easy to grasp:
look for alien concepts and things that seem irrelevant, and join them together.
Embrace emotions over intellect, and the irrational over the rational.
In applying these principles, Gordon and Prince assumed that the creative process can be described and then taught to others. They also believed that their process, Synectics, will apply widely to different domains of endeavour and can be used by groups and individuals.
They start with a cycling between the ‘operational world’ of routines and procedures, and the ‘innovation world’ of speculation and experimentation. New solutions become more available as we move out of the reality of the operational world, and increasingly embrace fantasy, metaphor, and absurdity.
The process they articulate is at its simplest:
Articulate the task.
Explore options, generating radical ideas that they called ‘Springboards’.
Select the best idea. Synectics presumes a preference for newness over feasibility at this stage.
Develop that idea, and how it might work in practice.
Two ideas stick with me from my learning about Synectics many years ago
The first one is the use of ‘How to…’
I love the way Synectics reframes every problem as ‘how to…’ I like it because it presupposes a solution exists and therefor the problem becomes finding it.
And once a selected idea emerges, the emphasis becomes intensely practical. We work on ‘how to make it work’. We constantly articulate the challenges and problems of implementation as ‘how to…’ Each time we solve this, we can modify the trial solution until, with no further issues, we have a possible solution, worthy of putting to the test in the real world.
The second is ‘In and Out Thinking’
Often, when we are in a meeting particularly a long one that is trying to solve a problem, our minds wander. We have ideas and thoughts that come from ‘inside’, as well as from the meeting: ‘outside’.
We can make best use of these by dividing our notebook page in two – I like to draw a vertical line. On one side, make notes about what you hear or see in the meeting – the Outside thinking. On the other, note down ideas that come from your own thoughts – the Inside thinking. Often these will be connections or distinctions, but sometimes they are seemingly random thoughts. Seemingly, because they are almost certainly triggered by something, but to you, they seem irrelevant, because you are not aware of the link.
Teresa Amabile was born in 1950 and went Canisius College in western New York State, to study Chemistry. After graduating in 1972, she shifted direction and enrolled at Stanford University to take an MA in psychology, and stayed on to defend her PhD thesis in 1977.
She returned to the East coast to take up an academic post as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brandeis, where she stayed until 1994, having become a full professor in 1990. There, she became an authority on creativity.
Her 1983 book, The Social Psychology of Creativity, republished in 1996 as Creativity in Context, is considered a classic research text for serious students. It reviews a wide and complex topic. Some of her own findings are most easily accessible in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, called How to Kill Creativity, which is well-worth reading.
In 1995, she moved to Harvard to become the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration, a chair she continues to hold emerita. There, Amabile opened up a second, related front in her research, looking at motivation, mood, and our inner life, at work.
Teresa Amabile sees creativity arising out of three components:
Expertise, or knowledge in all its forms
Motivation to solve a problem. Self-motivation (or ‘intrinsic‘ motivation) is far more important than external (‘extrinsic‘) motivation, which can even stifle creativity.
Creative-thinking skills. Amabile asserts there is a capability here and she describes it in terms of flexibility, imagination and perseverance.
Managers can influence the development and deployment of these three components, and in her HBR article, Amabile lists six ways.
Managers need to provide tasks that challenge and stretch their employees, rather than allowing them to remain in their comfort zone. Notice how this relates to Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for Flow.
People thrive best when they are able to work independently on their assignments. This reflects one of the three components of Self Determination Theory: Autonomy.
We know constraints help creativity and time pressure boosts it too. But these are likely to do so by also increasing intrinsic motivation. Amabile finds that, without sufficient time and material resources, creativity is held back.
Managers can create the local conditions for creativity by encouraging enthusiasm, mutual support and, vitally, a respect among team members for each others’ diverse abilities and contributions.
In a finding that is mirrored by Amabile’s more recent work on inner work-life and motivation, she concludes that managers who encourage and praise team members get more creativity out of them. (Shock horror!)
She argues that this goes further. A culture of creativity needs full-on organisational support behind that of the team’s immediate managers. People need to feel their creativity is valued and will open up opportunities.
The Progress Principle
Amabile’s most recent work into our ‘inner worklife‘ has caught the attention of the business press. Her findings show a complete conflict between what people think motivates them at work, and what actually leaves them feeling satisfied at the end of the day.
In questionnaires, Amabile found a very low self-assessment of the importance of making progress in overall mood and job satisfaction. But when she carefully analysed thousands of personal journal entries, she discovered that a sense of having made progress during the day offered the single greatest positive correlation to feeling good at the end of the day. And setbacks in work likewise had an adverse effect on end-of-the-day mood.
I can’t help thinking that David McClelland would hardly have been surprised that this is true of the people he described as having a high ‘Need for Achievement’. But Amabile showed that this applies to almost everyone. And this makes progress a very powerful and equally simple lever of motivation.
And… it is one that managers can easily manipulate. As a project manager, I have always advocated the use of more, rather than fewer, milestones on my projects. Each milestone is a point of recognition of progress. As a manager, you can set more progress indicators for your teams, and expect them to feel better about their work than if they had long periods between conspicuous successes.
There is far more to Amabile’s research than this. But she is an eloquent and clear speaker, so take a look at her describing the Progress Principle, in a 2011 TEDx talk, in Atlanta…
Teresa Amabile at TEDx
Here is Amabile speaking about the progress principle at TEDx, in 2011.
Linda Hill’s 2011 book, Being the Boss, was rated as one of Wall Street Journal’s 5 books to read in 2011, to build your career. But that work has since been eclipsed by the work Hill has done in collaboration with three colleagues. In this, she looks at how leaders spur innovation. The secret, she finds, is in ‘collective genius’.
Very Short Biography
Linda Hill was born in 1957, and attended Bryn Mawr College, where she earned a BA in Psychology. She then went to University of Chicago, to read for her MA in Educational Psychology, which she followed with a PhD in Behavioural Science.
In 1984, Hill joined the staff of the Harvard Business School, as an assistant professor. She became an associate professor in 1991, and full professor in 1995. Since 1997, she has been Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, where she has studied a broad spectrum of management and leadership topics. Her current interests remain centred on leadership, with particular focus on innovation, leading in the 21st century, and the new black business elite of South Africa.
Linda Hill’s Ideas
Becoming a Manager
Hill’s first book was Becoming a Manager (2003). This is a robust guide to taking on a management role, with a strong focus on its challenges within a career context. There is little innovative in it, but it does form a good guide to an important (and under-studied) career point. Hill concludes that a new manager must learn to:
Set the strategy and direction for their team
Align their people around that direction
Motivate and inspire them to achieve their goals
Being the Boss
Being the Boss (2011) is an altogether more substantial contribution, co-written with Kent Lineback. In this, Hill suggest three priorities for leaders:
Managing your network
Managing your team
So far, so standard. What makes this book stand out is its depth,and the way it gives genuinely valuable pointers to help managers and leaders progress on their journey. It is both thoughtful and practical. This is a book that is filled with pragmatic advice, and has inspired a mandatory module in Harvard’s MBA programme.
The research, conducted through a series of interviewers with leaders at highly creative organisations, concludes that the traditional image of a visionary leader driving creativity is a false one. Visionaries rarely lead great innovation. Instead, they tend to be the ones who get in its way.
A constant stream of good innovation needs leaders who are ‘social architects’ that can create a culture of collaboration. This means creating a sense of community, that rests on shared values, a clear purpose, and mutually agreed ways of working together. The diagram below illustrates this and is adapted from the book.
Once the leader has created this shared culture of collaboration, they need to give the groups a chance to discuss, argue, test, experiment and learn from their successes and failures. Crucially, the leader also needs to give ideas long enough to develop, so that evaluation is based on real results, rather than anticipation. In low creativity cultures, leaders select from competing ideas too soon. They reject and lose good ideas that do not seem as likely to thrive, while in their early stages.
Where different ideas are allowed to develop and be tested fully in parallel, decision-making is more robust. The authors identify three leadership abilities, which the leader must also develop within the group:
1. Creative Abrasion
Creating a culture of robust debate and challenge, that will generate the new ideas.
2. Creative Agility
A rapid cycle of test, learn, adjust that values experimentation as the way to optimise.
3. Creative Resolution
A decision-making approach that shuns ‘either-or’ thinking in favour of integrating different and sometimes opposing ideas.
In a fast-moving and complex world, easy solutions will be few and far between. We need a constant supply of new insights into how we can better synthesise subtle and complex solutions, and make wise choices about which to invest in. Many reviewers suggest that every CEO should be reading this book. I just wish it could find its way onto the reading pile of some more senior politicians.
I have already declared my interest as a fan of Edward de Bono in the 2012 blog: The Fertile Mind of Edward de Bono, which I followed up with Six times Four: More de Bono. Now it is time for a slightly wider survey of the work of the man who introduced the term ‘lateral thinking’ and who has been trying to teach business people, governments, student and their teachers to think for nearly half a century.
Edward de Bono was born in Malta in 1933, the second of four sons of a doctor father and journalist mother, and was an exceptionally bright pupil at his Malta boarding school. He was three years younger than his class-mates when he got his degree in medicine from Malta University and went off to study psychology and physiology at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he also earned a DPhil in medicine. This was followed by slew of further degrees and academic appointments, that leave him, technically, Dr Dr Dr Dr (Dr) de Bono. I may have mis-counted and I have bracketed his first qualification as a medical doctor, as that was not an academic doctorate. I think we can conclude that Edward de Bono is both intelligent and academically motivated.
In 1967, he published the first of his popular books on thinking, the now out of print The Use of Lateral Thinking. This book introduced the world to his idea of ‘lateral thinking’ – a term that de Bono coined. His books now number around 60, of which the current most popular are:
De Bono has also created online thinking skills programmes and the CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust) programme for teaching thinking to school-age children.
De Bono’s Contribution to Managers and Business Professionals
I think this is where de Bono has clearly been at his best and least controversial. Many of his techniques and training programmes have provided business people, public service managers and other professionals with practical and helpful tools to enhance their critical thinking and creative thinking skills. Like any creative powerhouse, de Bono has produced easily as many ideas that have not gained widespread use as he has lasting ideas. But we should judge him on the latter.
This term is now so widely used that de Bono’s original meaning has been largely subsumed into the wider context of ‘creative thinking’. By ‘Lateral Thinking’, I believe de Bono originally meant perceiving the world in different ways, so that your thinking about a problem can pursue lateral branches, rather than following the main route that is obvious to it. It therefore means looking for new starting points for addressing a problem – an implicit assumption that existing patterns of thought rarely solve new problems effectively.
A central theme of a lot of de Bono’s books on creative thinking is the idea that provocative assertions stimulate lateral jumps in our thinking. De Bono crystallised this idea in his (now out of print) book Po: Beyond Yes and No. By analysing the provocation (or ‘Po’), we can reach new and possibly fruitful insights.
Another key theme of de Bono’s work, including Po, is that the dichotomies of yes versus no, or right versus wrong, or good versus bad, lead us into linear thinking that is poor at identifying new ideas or thinking in a rich and subtle way. Arguably de Bono’s single most powerful tool is PMI analysis, which can get you over that problem.
It takes its inspiration from Kurt Lewin’s force field analysis approach (which, incidentally, leads directly to SWOT Analysis). But instead of looking at the driving and restraining forces, or the strengths and weakness alone, PMI analysis asks us to look at the Pluses, the Minuses and the things that are Interesting about a situation, option or challenge. This third dimension opens your mind to the subtleties and to new ideas.
Six Thinking Hats
We covered this idea more fully in an earlier blog, but the essence of the concept is simple: that there are different ways to think and that we will solve problems more effectively and make more robust decisions, when we apply multiple modes of thinking, rather than a single, favourite style. The six thinking hats represent six modes: analytical, risk-averse, constructive, imaginative, emotional, and procedural thinking (white, black, yellow, green, red and blue hats respectively).
De Bono’s work is not without its critics – even his ‘mainstream’ contributions. Many cognitive scientists have critiqued the lack of evidence base for the efficacy of his methods and programmes – which matters deeply where the teaching of children is concerned, as for his CoRt programme. However, I am not qualified to assess these arguments. It does seem to me that there is a dichotomy here between the theoretical/academic assessment and the practical/utilitarian usage. His ideas as an addition to other training and teaching make a useful contribution to thinking skills for many people. There is plenty of testimony to support that assertion, even if the rigorous evidence base is lacking.
So, as with so much else in the world of management ideas, the proof is in the practical application: take de Bono’s ideas out for a test drive, and decide whether they are for you. If they help you: use them. If they do not: consign them to the bookshelf, and take them to the charity shop, next time you are passing. Maybe, if you donate one of de Bono’s books that I don’t own, I may well buy it!
It’s Christmas in two days (from publication of this blog). So who could be a more appropriate management thinker than…
Walt Disney was perhaps the most visionary business leader of the twentieth century. He grew a simple cartoon character into a vast empire, which sells one thing: dreams
Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901, in Chicago, but he grew up on a farm in Missouri. From the earliest age, he was constantly sketching.When the family returned to Chicago while Disney was in his teens, he focused his education on drawing, and studied art in the evenings.
During the First World War, Disney was keen to serve, but failed to demonstrate that he was old enough. Instead, he joined the Red Cross and, at the close of the war, drove ambulances in France. After the war, he had several attempts to create a career from cartooning, and taught himself to make animated films quickly discovering that painted transparent cels gave better effects than cut-outs. After one failed business (that failed by paying its animators more than he could sell the films for) he moved to Hollywood and, with his brother Roy, set up Disney Brothers Studio.
He continued to innovate technically, basing his technique on his earlier discovery and artistically, inventing his stand-out character creation Mickey (originally Mortimer) Mouse who featured in the world’s first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, in 1928. The next innovation was to use Technicolour for cartoons, with the Silly Symphonies series, but the big hit was when Disney placed $2 million at hazard – a huge amount in the middle of The Great Depression – by making the first ever full length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
This won an oscar for the Best Picture (actually, one oscar and seven mini oscars – another first) and labelled Disney as a creative genius. More animated movies followed, all now seen as classics: Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Then came the war and a series of animated propaganda movies that it is hard – if not impossible – to find copies of.
After the war, the stream of feature movies resumed, but Disney also turned his attention to a new vision: theme parks. First came the Disneyland Theme Park in Anaheim, California, followed by Disney World in Florida, opened in 1971, five years after Disney’s death in 1966.
Lessons for Managers
By all accounts, Disney was a flawed manager at best, frequently leaving contributions unacknowledged and imposing arbitrary rules without exception. Not all his rules were arbitrary, however – the injunction against swearing upheld the wholesome brand image, and not all were without exception – Disney did not impose his rule against facial hair for men upon himself.
What we can learn are 5 valuable lessons.
1. Vision means Vision
We all too often read or hear a company’s vision statement. All to rarely do they have any sense of vision: of visual impact. Disney constantly used imagery to illustrate what he could see, to help others to see it too. Famously, Roy Disney commented that, on the completion of Disney World, Walt Disney had already seen it when he died, even though it was far from completion.
2. Vision is nothing without Drive
Visionary he may have been, but Disney also had the determination, tenacity, and at times ruthlessness to make his vision a reality. It is also worth mentioning how uncompromising he was in ruthlessly demanding the very best work from his artistic staff.
3. Less is More
It seems an odd comment to make of the man who invented feature length cartoons, but the sheer amount of ideas that Disney abandoned in every one of the films he personally oversaw was staggering. In modern times, they would have filled a box set of DVD extras. And much of it was extremely good – just not good enough for Disney.
4. Protect the Brand Values
Everything Disney did – and much of what it still does – is to protect his vision of what the Disney brand means: dreams. Where modern managers and artistic directors have strayed, huge rows have ensued. As the father of a young girl, the power of Disney to evoke wonder seems to me to be as great today as it ever was.
5. Creativity is Hard Work
Disney and his teams worked hard at being creative. It was a constant struggle of ideas, discussions and culling of anything less than the very best. And then more ideas, more discussion and more culling. Disney the dreamer was half of a split personality. The other half was Disney the critic.
If you are interested in Creativity, you might like:
Any thoughts that readers may have that all management models originate in the US or the UK – or the wider Anglophone world – can be put to one side. I have discovered a marvellously powerful method for creative innovation, emerging from France.
The French model can be translated into the English acronym DUCK and it gives us the four stages of radical innovation.
D – Drop
– abandon wholly your old ways of doing things
U – Upend
– turn the old ways entirely on their head
C – Create
– build a new process, system, toolkit or idea from the inverted ideas of the past
K – Kindle
– ignite the sparks of your creative thinking with bold execution of your new ideas
What I love about the DUCK method is its gutsy Gallic determination to stimulate creation. From now on, whenever I am in need of new ideas, I will doggedly DUCK the issue.
By the way, on a curious note, the French word for duck is canard, which the English dictionary defines as ‘a false report, rumour or hoax’.
This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
That black hole is where a brilliant, innovative, creative idea happens.
Many, Many Approaches to Creativity
There are many approaches to stimulating this sort of creative idea, from bisociation to nyaka, from the Eureka method to Merlin. You will find all of these and more in The Creative Manager’s Pocketbook.
But there are two ‘master techniques’ that will serve a busy manager magnificently well. Let’s try them out. To do so, think of one or two problems for which you want to find a creative solution. Write them down in your notebook in the form:
‘I would like to discover how to…’
This is your ‘problem definition’.
Exercise 1: Sleep on it
Most creativity methods implicitly recognise that creativity happens while we are not looking. Given a problem, our brains will work on it at any time they have spare capacity. So the master technique creates that space by taking your mind off actively considering the problem – or anything else. Go for a walk, go out with friends or, better yet, take a nap. Best of all, write down your problem definition before you go to sleep at night.
The second stage to the process recognises that, when our brains are busy, ideas can’t find the room to get out. They tend to emerge either when something in our environment triggers them to emerge, because it bears some form of similarity, so the barrier is lowered, or in the spaces when our minds are still, like in the shower, walking to the bus stop, or drinking a coffee.
Since you cannot arrange the trigger event that lowers the barriers momentarily, create the quietening conditions that will let your idea emerge. Spend some time doing nothing that requires deliberate thought. Daydream, jot random thoughts onto a page, or sip a coffee or a tea, looking out of the window.
Constructive idleness is one of the two master techniques for creativity.
Exercise 2: Up and Down
Many creativity techniques are about breaking the mental constraints that we impose on our own thinking and finding a new way to look at the problem: so called ‘thinking outside the box’. Here, ‘the box’ represents your mental constraints.
The master technique for doing this is to start with your problem definition: ‘how to…’ and ask your self:
‘What is my reason for wanting to…?’
Keep asking this question of each answer (akin to the 5 Whys Technique) until the answer is both fundamental and self-evidently true. This is your ultimate purpose. Having gone ‘up’, now come back down, with the question:
‘How else can I achieve this purpose?’
Keep asking this to generate creative new options.
We’ve listed the six hats. Let’s do the same for the others. Whilst I own copies of Six Action Shoes and Six Value Medals, it was only in researching this blog that I learned about the newest book here, so I am indebted to Professor Tortoise for the primer in the Six Frames.
Six Action Shoes
Navy Formal Shoes
Represent formal routines, processes and procedures.
Represent exploring, investigating and gathering information.
Brown Practical Brogues
Represent practical, pragmatic, roll-your-sleeves-up action.
Represent safety-conscious activities and emergency action.
Pink Comfy Slippers
Represent caring, concerned, compassionate and sensitive action.
Purple Riding Boots
Represent leadership, authority and command.
Six Value Medals
Gold Medal – Human Values
Values relating to putting people first.
Silver Medal – Organisational Values
Values relating to your organisation’s purpose.
Steel Medal – Quality Values
Values relating to your product, service or function.
Glass Medal – Creativity Values
Values relating to creating, innovating and simplicity.
Wood Medal – Environmental Values
Values relating to sustainability and impact on the community and on society.
Brass Medal – Perceptual Values Values relating to the way things appear.
Six Frames for Thinking
Triangle Frame – Purpose
Understanding the information at hand – the What, the Why and the Where.
Circle Frame – Accuracy
Is the information consistent, accurate and adequate for our needs (to solve a problem or make a decision, for example)?
Square frame – Perspectives
We can look at information and a situation from different points of view, with different biases and prejudices. Which ones are present?
Heart Frame – Interest
Focuses our attention on the relevant, salient, interesting information that matters most to you.
Diamond Frame – Value
How do we evaluate the value of our information? We can use the six value medals to prioritise its importance.
Slab Frame – Conclusions
What does the information tell us and, crucially, what next?