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Now you’re thinking

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Think about this one for just a moment: what is the common solution for the problems facing a business in trouble and a sporting team facing the same fate? This might surprise you, but the solution is the same common answer to most of the world’s business and social problems – it’s ‘thinking’.

The most powerful reason for success in business is thinking.

For those who have not kept up with the history of thinking, Edward de Bono is the man who coined the term ‘lateral thinking’, and he’s one of the most sought after speakers/thinkers for big corporations around the world.

According to de Bono, thinking is a desperately underrated activity. However, its importance wasn’t lost on the Australian cricket team. During our interview, de Bono revealed how a few years ago John Buchanan (the team’s coach) and Steve Waugh (its captain) asked him to talk to the team about thinking. The team did not lose a series since de Bono spoke to them, he proudly announced. “Needless to say, I have not spoken to the England cricket team!” he laughs.

Wicked waste

But what about academia? De Bono is surprised that universities and schools pay little attention to thinking as the building blocks for higher achievement. “I was made the first Professor of Thinking in Pretoria (South Africa),” de Bono says. “The first ever course for thinking was in the University of Pretoria.”

When asked why our education systems don’t provide a subject called ‘thinking’ from first grade on, de Bono doesn’t hold back.

“A lot of kids who do not do well at school are good thinkers and they’re wasted,” he explains. “Teaching thinking for just five hours, in all, to unemployed youngsters in England, on the government’s unemployment program, increased the employment rate 500 per cent. And a year later, 96 per cent of them were still off the unemployment register. 

“These were kids who left school thinking they were stupid.  They were not stupid at all. They were wasted. Schools waste two-thirds of the talent in society and universities sterilise the other third.

“The basic skill at school is guessing what the teacher wants, and those who could not be bothered or did not want to or weren’t good at guessing do very badly at school. But the rest of life is not about guessing what the teacher wants.”

That’s telling it the  way he sees it, but these are not the ravings of someone who failed the conventional education system – de Bono was an academic virtuoso. I found this out when I asked where he got the idea to become a specialist in thinking.

“I studied psychology at Oxford,” he explains. “But I already had a medical degree, and in medicine I was dealing with the more complex systems of lungs, kidneys, circulation respiration and so on, and developed ideas on self-organising systems.

“So then I said, ‘Let’s apply the systems to neural networks in the brain and see how the brain is designed to work’. What is it good at? What is it not good at?”

De Bono reveals this is where he found the basis of his famously coined term ‘lateral thinking’.

The term ‘lateral thinking’ was coined in 1967 and has become part of our language with the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledging de Bono’s ‘baby’ with an entry.

The term’s creator says there are several ways to refining lateral thinking, ranging from the technical to the illustrative.

Let those creative juices flow

Nowadays, de Bono is emphasising the value of creative thinking. He explains that creativity had always been thought of as a sort of mystical process.

“I said ‘no’ – creativity is the logical behaviour of information in a self-organising system, which makes symmetric patterns. There is an underlying basis for designing thinking tools, the provocation tools, the elementary tools,” he says. “It’s not just a matter of sitting and saying creative people seem to do this, let’s do this, too.”

I ask what I thought was the logical question: is it easy for the average person to adjust their chaotic or received-learning thinking processes to become more logical? And I am corrected!

“To become more logical, the answer is ‘yes’,” de Bono replies. “You learn the frameworks, you learn the habits, you learn the attitudes and you need a bit of discipline, at least at first, until you learn them. It’s not unlike learning to roller-skate, skateboard or ski, you need to have a certain discipline until you learn it, then it becomes more habitual.”

He then answers the question that I should have asked.

“Creative, the answer is ‘yes – you definitely can learn the processes I talk about and can increase the output of ideas tremendously,” he advises.

“One example in England working with a television channel, they said in one day after the training session they had more ideas than they had had in the six months before. And you could easily show or get a group to think about something and then introduce one of the processes or techniques and the output of ideas skyrockets.”

And this example shows how creative ideas can grow exponentially.

“Another example is in South Africa where one of my trained associates working with a steel company set up 130 workshops mixing in senior engineers and people who swept the shop floor.  That afternoon they generated 21,000 ideas!”

It might seem to be a contradiction to a creative type, who believes he or she just gives in to creative juices, but de Bono argues that structure actually helps creativity production.

He contends that structure puts the brain in a certain position and then, as it moves forward or restabilises, the transfer of ideas increases. And it’s ideas that are critical to the creation of successful, innovative businesses.

Bright ideas

In their book, de Bono and Lyons analyse the likes of Dick Smith, Gerry Harvey and RM Williams, along with the business brains behind good idea companies such as ResMed and BridgeClimb.

Paul Cave of BridgeClimb is singled out by de Bono as an example of someone who’d thought creatively and undoubtedly, laterally, to see how something that all Sydneysiders see frequently (the Sydney Harbour Bridge) could be developed for business.

The argument, put simply, is that developing creative thinking generates ideas that will be good for your business and your bottom line.

The point is that thinking is enhanced by establishing the structures, applying the thought processes and putting in some practice. So, do our social habits or watching television and the like inhibit our thought development?

“Yes, in a sense, if you spend all your time in passive input such as TV or rock music, then you never exercise your brain, never develop some of the habits of the mind of thinking,” de Bono explains.

“Then there is another difficulty with children when they use computers and the Internet. They start to believe that you don’t have to think. It is enough to search and someone, somewhere has the answer for you. Now that’s dangerous.”

Clearly, business people around the globe have succeeded without an enormous understanding of thinking patterns, but were they innate thinkers anyway? “What was interesting was when I wrote my books, I had letters from very well-known creative people,” de Bono recalls. 

“They were architects and industrial designers, who said ‘we appreciate what you are doing because we believe we produced some of these things instinctively, but now we believe we can do then much more thoroughly and much more powerfully’.”

A new business disease

In the most popular subject for businesses – marketing – de Bono’s thinking is instructive.

“Marketing is all about value,” he lectures. “How you create value, how you deliver value and how you make value apparent.  In the end, that’s what people are buying – value. It has got to be value driven.

“The question is, how you do it? You can challenge existing ways of doing it and then you can start to develop other ways and other values. You need to have a lot of value sensitivity. 

“Creativity by itself generates ideas, but unless you have value sensitivity you won’t recognise a good idea even when you generate it. So you need to have value sensitivity, which, in general, we are all poor at.”

However, we have other weaknesses.

“There is a new business disease I have diagnosed,” de Bono reveals.

“It is called SKIDS (Sufficient Knowledge Idea Deficit Syndrome). People believe that knowledge is enough and the answer is, it’s not. How you put knowledge together to design value is going to become more and more central. Just doing the same thing with great competence is not enough.”

De Bono insists that knowledge alone is not enough; it’s how you use knowledge that matters. Inventors have often been out-thought by innovators who adapted the first bright idea.

“Years ago, I was working with Shell Oil,” de Bono recalls.  “When you drill an oil well you drill it vertically, which is traditionally a very satisfactory model. I asked ‘why don’t you drill horizontally to a certain level’? Today, nearly every oil well in the world is drilled like that because you get between three to six times more oil from that well. They were very happy with the traditional way, but there was a better way.”

Make it happen

The de Bono view on making creative thinking happen in a business is that it generally starts at the top.

“When I have worked with major organisations, it is usually the CEO or someone very senior who has said we need this,” he says.

“Otherwise it doesn’t happen. The CEO doesn’t need to be the most creative person in the world, but needs to be someone who understands the importance of creativity, otherwise it doesn’t happen.”

On the subject of efficiency, it was business that first recognised the value of thinking in its own right – not academia.

“Business as a sector of society has shown more interest in thinking than any other sector because in the academic and political world it is enough to defend your point of view,” de Bono says.

“In business you can defend your point of view until you go blue in the face and you’re bankrupt next week. Business has a reality check. Proving you’re right is nothing.

“When I wrote my first book it wasn’t aimed at business.  Business came to me and said, ‘What you are talking about is of value to us’. Business has always shown interest. They are more interested in thinking than anyone else.”

Asked what book of his could make the biggest difference to someone keen to think more effectively, de Bono goes for Why So Stupid – How the Human Race has Never Really Learnt to Think.

A final question, and I can’t resist this one. Does Edward de Bono spend his whole life thinking, or does he occasionally ‘veg out’? And if so, what does he do to relax?

“I don’t regard thinking as hard work,” he explains. “I think Rodin – when he crafted his famous sculpture of The Thinker as very solemn and really heavy – did thinking a disservice. He made thinking seem like a very hard job. Thinking is about designing games. I design games and all sorts of things. So that’s fun.”

Back to the actual question … “I used to play sport, tennis, polo; I like going to films and meeting people. I like the Discovery Channel. And I think some of the TV soaps are fun, too.”

Published on: Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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