By Luis S. R. Vas
Creativity alone is what makes you stand out in a crowd. Edward de Bono, the originator of lateral thinking who was in India recently, has been delving deep into creativity, winning for himself applause from the corporate world
Call him a creativity expert, lateral thinking guru or parallel thinking teacher, who treats creativity as the behaviour of information in a self-organising information system—such as the neural networks in the brain. He has written 62 books with translations into 37 languages and has been invited to lecture in 54 countries.
Business executives from all management echelons paid up Rs 25,000 apiece and trouped to Strategy Summits conducted in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai in late March 2004 by Edward de Bono. Armed with an overhead projector, acetate sheets, a fistful of colour pens and a smooth tongue, the expert embarked with the participants on a journey to discover the deeper realms of creativity.
Although de Bono’s name is today synonymous with lateral thinking, he had many more conceptual tricks up his sleeve and additional devices to accelerate the pace of integrating his tools into the workplace.
With the help of fluently drawn diagrams, de Bono let the participants discover how their meeting-time can be reduced; how quickly new, breakthrough ideas can be generated; how to build a creative team; and how to develop thinking skills and sharpen creativity with the cutting-edge tools he has devised.
The participants learnt to keep pace with change—both at the strategic and frontline level; to create new concepts and generate new ideas on demand using lateral thinking; and to identify priority by developing a creative hit list and share corporate experiences.
“We often try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope and creativity–all are mixed in. It’s like juggling too many balls,” de Bono said.
So, the creative expert also taught them which hat to wear while solving this problem!
Six Thinking Hats
Hat? Well, de Bono’s most successful concept has been that of the Six Thinking Hats. These are imaginary hats, each representing a particular approach to thinking when you wear it: The White Hat calls up information, known or needed. The Red Hat lays you open to feelings, hunches and intuition. The Yellow Hat works on values and benefits and why something may work. The Black Hat is judgmental, playing the devil’s advocate or arguing why something may not work. The Green Hat focuses on creativity: Possibilities, alternatives and new ideas. The Blue Hat is used to manage the thinking process itself. By wearing the hats serially, one hat at a time, and mentally operating in the manner appropriate to it, you learn to arrive at more creative solutions to your problems.
“If, while ideating, each employee puts on hats that represent data processing, logical negative, hunch and alternatives etc, an organisation would benefit immensely,” de Bono assured the participants. Thinking this way would foster collaborative thinking, reduce adversarial approach, create a positive atmosphere for thinking and help run more effective meetings!
He says: “Businessmen should not get bogged down in details and overlook the big picture. The top management should challenge themselves and their employees by creating alternatives via creative thinking.”
The multiple-hat concept was first propounded in the book Six Thinking Hats. Recalls de Bono: “Six Hats was actually just written up in one afternoon. I had to write an article for something. I tried to imagine a situation for creative thinking, but if the environment was such that the greatest motivation of everyone around was to fuel their ego by saying, ‘That won’t work’, and ‘That’s wrong,’ ‘That’s not going to happen’, and so on and so on—until we could move them through that, it wasn’t going to happen. To move out of such an entrenched negative mode of thinking by saying, ‘Don’t do it’, doesn’t make sense. But to say, ‘There is a time and place where that sort of critical thinking is perfectly correct, but other times where it’s not,’ might work. So it started out as a reaction to the negativity.” The article was then expanded into the book—probably his most widely selling one.
De Bono maintains that, to this day, argument is the basis of our normal thinking. The purest form of this type of thinking is in the law courts where the prosecution takes one side of the argument and the defence the other side. Each strives to prove the other side wrong. The ‘truth’ is to be reached by argument. There is a place for argument, he admits, which is a useful tool of thinking. But argument is inadequate as the main tool of thinking.
“Argument lacks constructive energies, design energies and creative energies. Pointing out faults may lead to some improvement but does not construct something new. Synthesising both points of view does not produce a stream of new alternatives. Today in business, as elsewhere, there is a huge need to be constructive and creative. There is a need to solve problems and to open up opportunities. There is a need to design new possibilities, not just to argue between two existing possibilities.”
For de Bono, an alternative to argument is parallel thinking, where each thinker puts forward his or her thoughts in parallel with the thoughts of others—not attacking the thoughts of others. “We now have a more constructive alternative to argument or drifting discussion,” the expert said.
The hats method was devised as a practical way of carrying out parallel thinking. The method is widely used at Prudential Insurance, and the former president of Prudential, Rob Barbaro, used the Six Hats framework every day with his staff. Siemens has over 35 certified Six Hats instructors working with employees throughout its European offices. Boeing is just now taking up the hats method in the US. The hats are also in use at Honeywell, Motorola, Eli Lilly, Cargill, Fidelity Investments, National Semiconductor and in many other companies. Healthcare groups, financial institutions, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers and utilities are just a few of the industries using Six Hats method. Over 200,000 people have been trained in the hats method in 35 countries.
Originally there was no mention of business in de Bono’s books, but business leaders came to him because they recognised the importance of what he was talking about. Of all sectors in the society, business is the one that is most interested in thinking, he says. Others, such as politics and academics are only interested in proving themselves right.
India tries the hats
K.R. Ravi, a management graduate from XLRI, Jamshedpur, with vast experience in both private and public sector is South Asia’s first Dr. Edward de Bono certified public trainer in lateral thinking. Manufacturing units, NGOs, public sector units like SBI and private sector majors like Godrej, Onida and Patni Computers got their personnel trained by Ravi.
The programme lasts two days but is compressed into one day for top management. The response, says Ravi, has been excellent, most of them having done repeat programmes. “Even the top management of the biggest industrial houses have attended my programme,” Ravi discloses.
The programme starts with a video of de Bono discussing lateral thinking and follows with a presentation of the basic concepts of lateral thinking explained with the help of an overhead projector.
“Only 25 per cent of the time I spend talking; the remaining 75 per cent are spent in hands-on activity by the participants working in groups,” says Ravi, who has written his own, soon to be released, book Thinking About Thinking, which, he assures you, is not based on de Bono’s thinking techniques. Lateral thinking is based on the premise best phrased by Einstein that “you cannot solve problems by using the kind of thinking that produced the problem in the first place.”
Sonia Banerji, from Onida Marketing, did the lateral thinking programme with Ravi about two years back. What did she get out of it? “I got the process clear in my head. It helps me in focusing.” Having found it useful at the time, she still uses its insights when not making headway on a particular problem. She maps the processes she extracted from the programme and uses them for her purpose.
A.O. Joseph, one of the managers with Patni Computers, did the course last year along with his colleagues. He found it interesting and useful and it helped him to look at various issues from a different perspective. In his management development function, he is called upon to provide internal consultancy to Patni’s various departments. Joseph found the training helpful enough to encourage him to send some 40 others from the company for the training.
The crux of lateral thinking is starting with an idea, drawing directions from an idea, which, in turn, gives us the concept, de Bono said at the Strategy Summit. This process gives us alternatives. “Just generating an idea is not enough. One has to take the idea through by believing in it, by taking its ownership, taking criticism with a pinch of salt.”
Critics see in these ideas only hyped commonsense, but de Bono’s clients maintain that benefits derived from their systematic use have been out of all proportion to their deceptive simplicity. Are they all talking through their hats?
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