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His life’s mission was to stretch the creative agility of everyone’s brain to the maximum, from children to top managers. To do this, he flew all over the world, gave lectures in 57 different countries, wrote 70 books and sat down with hundreds of companies to help them come up with fresh ideas and innovative concepts. For instance, one day he was working on the foundation of a new drilling method for Shell and the next on a new franking method for the postal company of Britain. He forced us to think about how we arrive at innovative solutions and developed numerous tools to help us do that.

Always one step ahead

De Bono’s philosophy focused on collective progress. He did not appreciate formulating descriptions of the world (after all, you are then putting the focus on what has already happened) but instead he preffered creating directions (then you are putting the focus on what is yet to come or what may eventuate). As such, De Bono defines creative thinking as “developing a step forward”. De Bono would absolutely have relished Innovation Origins’ slogan: “Your sneak preview of the future.” De Bono also held the view that everyone benefits from a more creative mind. He saw a creative mind as an attractive mind that you can easily enhance with a number of tools. Just as you can train your body to jump further, you can also train your head to stretch further.

Edward de Bono had a broad perspective when it came to science. For example, he did not allow himself to be pinned down to a single scientific discipline. He studied medicine, did a master’s degree in psychology, later became a Professor of Thinking and was even shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Economics. Academically, however, he was also regularly under fire. This was mainly because he was more focused on how his creative techniques helped in practice than on scientifically demonstrating how effective his methods were. Pragmatic validity was thereby an especially important principle for him. He was the scientist who served not science, but actual practice. This attitude was also good for him personally. After all, there was much more money to be made in serving the fields of practice than in serving the fields of science.

Roaming inside your brain

De Bono is best known for his contributions in the areas of lateral thinking and parallel thinking. Lateral thinking, a term de Bono himself introduced, means that you do not go from A to B using a logical way of thinking, but take a mental detour and see where it takes you. In a city, for example, you can simply drive from point A to point B, but you can also get off at point A and wander the streets and see where you end up. The latter is lateral thinking. When you take mental side-roads and start roaming around in your brain, you get perspectives and insights you would otherwise not have had.

We do not discuss things because we think that it is such a wonderful method. We discuss things because we don’t know that other methods exist.
Edward de Bono in ‘How to be More Interesting’

Parallel thinking involves looking at an issue from several parallel perspectives. De Bono illustrates this with an apt metaphor in his book ‘How to be More Interesting.’ “Imagine four people standing around a square building. Each person stands on a different side. Each person insists that what they are seeing is an accurate view of the building. They discuss this via walkie-talkies. With parallel thinking, each person walks to one side of the building. They subsequently describe one by one what they see. Then they walk on to another side of the building and describe again what they see. The same procedure is done for the third and fourth sides of the building. The result is that all parties use the same vantage point and describe what they see on that basis. The eventual result is a complete survey of the building.”

Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats. Image inspired by De Bono (2014) and Aithal & Kumar (2017)

In our daily lives, we find ourselves standing on a different side of a building almost every day, yelling at each other very loudly about our own perspective. Edward de Bono was firmly convinced that these sorts of discussions do not help us any further and take up a lot of time in the meantime. We could just take a walk around the building together, couldn’t we? Can you imagine how fast you would be able to move forward once you can skip all the discussions on the road to progress?

To do this, De Bono developed the method of the six thinking hats, his most widely used and world-renowned thinking tool. Instead of the four sides of the building, you then collectively take six perspectives of a case study and walk around the case study together that way in an imaginary circle. Each perspective is characterized by a different colored hat. De Bono’s thinking hast are categorically not meant to be pigeonholed (as in, “you are yellow”) or used as a form of role-playing with each person wearing a different hat – this only leads to more discussion – but instead are used to jointly take turns changing perspectives. It seems childishly simple, but it is ultimately incisively effective. Why do it the hard way when you can do it the easy way? Edward de Bono loved childishly simple interventions. Maybe that’s why he’s not as well-known as he should be?

Making history together

Despite having written 70 books, Edward de Bono was far from a brilliant writer. Yet every innovator should have at least one of his books on their bookshelf. That’s what I think, but that’ s what he thought too. The guy was not particularly modest: “The method of the six thinking hats is perhaps the most important change in our thinking in the last 2,300 years”. Maybe it’s okay to be immodest too when so many innovations are directly or indirectly the consequence of your work? And, let’s face it, organizations like Siemens, IBM, Shell and NASA have all embraced De Bono’s school of thought. So together, let’s embrace Edward de Bono’s life mission and encourage each other to keep stretching our brains.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented by guest bloggers, are all working on solutions in their own way on the problems of our time. So that tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.