The Friday Interview: Dr Edward de Bono, author and consultant

4 Mar 2005

Nestled comfortably in a sofa in a Dublin hotel, Dr Edward de Bono (pictured), renowned author and management guru, is doing what he does best: talking about thinking — and spiking a few misconceptions along the way.

His first target is Leonardo da Vinci, whom most would classify as one of the great minds of all time. Not so, contends De Bono. “In fact da Vinci was not a great thinker. He was a great artist but when he designed a tank, the wheels went against each other and it would just have dug a hole in the ground, and when he invented a flying machine he used a very heavy ladder to get the pilot into his seat. So there was tremendous creative energy there but, no, he was not a very good thinker,” De Bono concludes.

The Malta-born, Oxbridge-educated septuagenarian has made a lucrative career out of writing and hypothesising about that most pivotal of all human activities — the mental processes that underpin decision making. He has written 67 books on the subject, many of which have proven very influential, including The Mechanism of Mind (1969) in which he coined the phrase lateral thinking and Six Thinking Hats (1985), which put forward a new paradigm for problem solving based on people looking at the same problem in different ways (emotionally, rationally, cautiously and so on) rather than the taking up of opposing positions that typifies traditional argument-based approaches.

De Bono is a qualified medical doctor, a status that has informed many of his theories and clearly enhanced his credibility. For example, after reading The Mechanism of Mind, which showed how the nerve networks in the brain formed asymmetric patterns as the basis of perception, leading physicist Professor Murray Gell Mann is said to have declared that the book was 10 years ahead of mathematicians dealing with chaos theory, non-linear and self-organising systems.

Similar to any management consultant worth their salt, de Bono has his finger on the pulse of what business is thinking and doing, and tailoring his output accordingly. His latest book, therefore, deals with one of the topics of the moment – ethics and corporate governance. Six Value Medals is, he explains, offers organisations a means of scanning and assessing their own values. “Each value is represented by a different medal: gold for human; silver for organisational; steel for quality; glass for innovation; wood for ecology; and brass for perceptual. It allows people to focus on values; otherwise they are vague and ambiguous. Values are what everyone says they are thinking about, so this provides a framework to help them do that.”

Despite De Bono’s advancing years – he is in his 72nd year – he still spends most of his working life in airplanes (where consequently he does much of his writing), travelling around the world to speak at conferences and deliver educational talks. He was in Dublin this week for the Innovation Day Conference at Dublin City University, where he was keynote speaker. He told his audience that creativity and innovation were critical to any company’s success, not just in terms of product development but also in other areas such as dealing with vendors and strengthening the relationship between a company and its key employees. He emphasised, however, that innovation is something that needed to be contrived; it would not automatically happen. “Every organisation can take the next step of systematically building a more innovative company at all levels, but developing the collective ‘innovative mindset’ of an organisation doesn’t magically happen. It requires intent and persistent effort, as well as use of effective, proven tools.”

This last sentence could be interpreted as a shameless plug for the many tools that the ‘De Bono school’ (as his consulting organisation could be called) has itself developed over the years to help people and organisations enhance their creativity. Over the years, de Bono and his associates have helped many major corporations such as IBM, DuPont, Prudential, AT&T, British Airways, Ericsson and Microsoft getting their thinking straight.

On this score, De Bono could never be accused of false modesty. At the tip of his tongue are numerous examples of companies that have employed his methods and prospered as a result. His Six Thinking Hats theory has been particularly helpful to organisations, he says. “In Canada, a [laboratory services] company called MDS found that it saved US$20m in one year using the Six Thinking Hats theory,” he notes. “Siemens has told me that it reduced its product development time by 50pc by using it. In Norway, Statoil had a problem with an oil rig that was costing US$100k a day. We introduced Six Hats there and in 12 minutes it had solved the problem and saved US$10m.”

But his influence extends far beyond the boundaries of normal business. A few years ago De Bono gave a pep talk to the Australian cricket team, following which Shane Warne and his fellow sportsmen won 20 one-day internationals 17 test matches on the trot and inflicted on England the biggest defeat in the history of test cricket. Coincidence? Possibly, except that, as de Bono recalls, he subsequently received a letter from the coach saying “It all started with your seminar”. What exactly had de Bono done? “I taught them the basic principles of creativity, which they then applied,” he says, matter of factly.

It is another theatre of sport – the Olympics – that has presented de Bono with perhaps his greatest claim to fame. The president of the 1984 games in Los Angeles, Peter Ueberroth, said in a Washington Post interview that De Bono’s ideas on lateral thinking had been the key to the success of the games, which had confounded the doomsayers by netting a profit of US$250m. It turned out that nine years before, in 1975, De Bono had given a seminar that was attended by the future boss of the LA games. This allows De Bono to make the claim that “the continuation of the Olympic Games is due to me”.

While De Bono feels his ideas are applicable across many spheres they have had greatest resonance in the business community. Why? “It’s because in business you’ve got a bottom line. In other areas, it’s enough to prove verbally that you are right, but in business you can prove you are right until you are blue in the face but go bankrupt the next week. In business there is a great motivation to say ‘How do we do better?’; ‘How do we solve this problem?’ and so on,” he explains.

Yet, despite their receptivity to his ideas, businesses remain great at doing but poor at thinking. While taking practical action might be essential to drive a business forward in itself it will not be enough to sustain a business in the long run, de Bono argues. “Big companies often feel that their momentum is such that they can continue to do the same things. They’re so focused on keeping the organisation going that they don’t devote much energy to doing things in a different way.”

Doing things in a different way, however, usually means having to persuade your colleagues to change their mindset. This is why such efforts are doomed to failure unless top brass lead the creativity project. “Generally speaking, unless the chief executive or someone senior is motivated creativity just doesn’t happen,” De Bono asserts. “A lot of companies pay lip service to innovation but actually they don’t do it. In business if you’re good at achieving continuity and problem solving you get promoted. But when you’re at a senior level, you need strategy as well; continuity and problem solving are not enough.”

By Brian Skelly

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