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Lateral Thinking – How not to think Vertically

Lateral Thinking

Lateral ThinkingSome 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.

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Edward de Bono: Thinking

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

Short Biography

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.

Lateral Thinking

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.

Provocation

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.

PMI Analysis

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).

Controversies

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!

 

 

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The Fertile Mind of Edward de Bono

The Green Hat Fits

Without a doubt, one of the most fertile minds in personal and management effectiveness of the late Twentieth Century is Edward de Bono.  His almost constant stream of books about thinking skills (approaching 60 to date – the latest is Think!: Before It’s Too Late) has provided insight, provocation, practical skills and frustrating verbiage by turns.  The fact is that I’m a sucker for his books and have 17 on my shelf.  Many have inspired me.

Green is One of Six

Perhaps de Bono’s two most famous titles are The Use of Lateral Thinking (1967 – and the several similar follow-up titles) and Six Thinking Hats(1985).

Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats

Six Thinking Hats is the one I frequently return to – both in my own thinking and in offering it as a valuable tool to workshop participants.  In a nutshell, de Bono advocates deploying different thinking modes to examine an issue, consider a decision or work on a problem from different points of view.

The Green Hat – Creativity

Put this on to think innovatively, creatively, and from a new perspective.

Yellow Hat – Positive

Put this on to think constructively, develop ideas, identify benefits and find practical ways to implement them.

Black Hat – Judgement

Put this on to evaluate risks, downsides and problems with an idea and evaluate it critically to protect us from mistakes.

White Hat – Factual

Put this on to focus on facts, evidence and logical analysis of the situation.

Red Hat – Feeling

Put this on for one of two reasons: to think intuitively and also to use your emotional response to generate and evaluate ideas.

Blue Hat – Process

Put this on to direct your team’s and your own thinking process; to provide an orderly structure for problem-solving, decision-making and evaluation, using all of the hats to see the topic in all possible ways.

The Thinking Hats Controversy

I don’t want to take sides: I don’t have a basis to do so.  But it is worth noting that Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson puts forward a case that the idea was developed not by de Bono, but by the directors of The Edward de Bono School of Thinking Inc – now defunct – but which Hewitt-Gleeson argues is the predecessor of his own School of Thinking.

What I do agree with Hewitt-Gleeson on is his rather lovely suggestion for a seventh hat.

The Grey Hat

Hewitt-Gleeson proposes a Grey Thinking Hat for Wisdom and I love the idea.  In his words:

Grey Hat Thinking is the ability to see consequences, immediate, short term and long term. It is the ability to look back over history and to see forward into the future. To understand cycles, passages of time, the passing of fashions, eras, eons and the many possible futures including extinction, the possibility of no future at all.

‘Grey Hat Thinking also means the wisdom to see other points of view. It includes the sagacity of patience to see beyond one’s own immediate viewpoint and the wisdom to see the viewpoints of others involved in situations: your partner’s viewpoint, your children’s, your children’s children, your neighbour’s, your customer’s, your enemy’s.’

From School of Thinking: Seventh Hat for Wisdom

Wisdom is a topic of great interest to me and, from now on, I intend to add The Grey Hat to my descriptions and credit it clearly.

Grey Thinking Hat of Wisdom

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