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Interview • July 04 2004

You can’t leave your hat on

Edward de Bono, the inventor of lateral thinking, speaks about his recently launched World Centre for New Thinking, the silly idiots who criticise his books and about ‘waffo’ – his alternative to cool

World conflicts, the national deficit, Air Malta’s colossal losses, terrorism and some of the other daunting problems of the world are about to fall under the microscope of the lateral thinking guru, or rather, under his thinking hats.
It’s not the first time Edward de Bono will be asked to come up with some creative solutions to problems that seem insurmountable – his clients range from Microsoft to illiterate South African tribes, from the Kremlin to the US Navy – but now he will be doing this through his World Centre for New Thinking, just opened here in Malta last week.
I meet Dr de Bono at his quaint 17 century townhouse in Haz-Zebbug, where he stays on his brief visits to Malta, in between his trips to the US, Australia, the UK, Singapore, Pakistan, India and all around the world. The 71-year-old visionary born in Floriana comes here at least twice a year to deliver the yearly seminar named after him; and international conferences on creative thinking, always fully-booked with people paying from Lm75 to Lm260 in registration fees.
His new centre, just inaugurated by the education minister in Villa Bighi, Kalkara, will be treating “any kind of problem,” Dr de Bono says, including the Middle East conflict.
“In fact we suggest an idea for Israel and Palestine, which is that the US gives a grant of US$5 billion a year to the Israelis, US$3 billion a year to the Palestinian Authority, but every time a terrorist kills a civilian, you lose US$50 million,” he says.
As I ponder his answer, he adds that the centre is “not there to tell people what to do” but it would help governments, corporations and whoever asks for “some additional thinking” to come up with new ideas.
“It will be an organising centre so if someone says we would like to support a task force to look at pensions, or refugees, we help to organise it. It’s not going to be making judgements,” Dr de Bono says.
The centre has been on his mind for a while and he chose Malta because of its neutral status.
“You see, it’s got to be in a country which doesn’t have a political position – a neutral country, preferably small, because once you are in a big country with its own political agenda, you are always suspected of being there to push that agenda.”
The centre is born out of “the need for new ideas,” he says, adding that for the last 2,400 years we’ve been thinking inadequately. “Our traditional habits of thinking are based on analysis and judgement. Analyse the situation, identify a standard element and then give the standard response to the standard parameter.
“Hundred per cent of our education is about that, probably 90 per cent of our behaviour. That’s OK, nothing wrong with it, just like there’s nothing wrong with the front left wheel of a motor car. We are not good at the design of thinking. For instance, we try to solve conflicts by argument: he’s good, he’s bad, you broke this principle, that’s unjust. We need to design ways forward, so there’s a need for new ideas.”
For sceptics, “the need for new ideas” sounds too vague but de Bono gives a whole list of successful uses of his popular lateral thinking and Six Hats technique.
“The continuation of the Olympics is literally due to my ideas,” he says. “In 1984, no city in the world would touch them,” because of the huge losses the games incurred on organisers. “Eventually Los Angeles agreed… for the first time ever they made a profit of around US$250 million. When Peter Ueberroth, who organised it, was interviewed on The Washington Post and asked how he did it, the whole interview is about using my lateral thinking.
“I wrote to him, I said where did you learn it? He said, don’t you remember, I was your host when you talked to the Young Presidents’ Organisation in 1975 … Ninety minutes in 1975 stuck in his head, he used the methods with his team, developed the ideas that made a success of the Olympic Games. So when you say ‘new ideas is vague,’ you see it’s not vague.”
He immediately gives another example: “Two years ago, the captain and coach of the Australian cricket team came to see me. They said they wanted new ideas in playing cricket.
“When I was in Sydney, I gave them a seminar, after which they won everything, they beat England – the biggest defeat in the history of test cricket – and I have a letter from the coach saying this all started with my seminar. Now I didn’t tell them ‘this is how you catch a ball’ or ‘this is how you hold a bat,’ I told them the general principles which they applied.
“New ideas are not vague – they are very specific for circumstances, but until you know the circumstance when you’re going to use them - it could be negotiation, it could be problem solving … so what the centre is going to do is a number of things.
“It’s a platform to make visible new ideas, because representative bodies like the United Nations and democracies, cannot easily put forward new ideas. I’m not saying they cannot have them, they cannot easily put them forward.”
“Because new ideas are new. They’re not representative. They’re not representative of existing thinking, by definition, so you don’t know how they’re going to be received – they’re high risk, so they prefer not to put them forward. So we need a platform which is outside these bodies to make these ideas visible. Once the ideas are visible, you can neglect them, use them, modify them, and so on.”
The centre will also be offering spadework services before negotiation conferences, what he calls “design conferences”.
“In design conferences, the parties involved put forward new possibilities, new concepts, without a commitment. Once those are on the table, when you come to negotiate you have much more to work with. During negotiation it is difficult to put forward a new idea because that idea is immediately seen in your favour.”
If it’s a hot issue why would anyone put his trust in de Bono’s centre for negotiation?
“Well, it depends… if the parties genuinely want to find a way forward, they would see the value for doing that. If they don’t want to find a way forward you can’t force them to do it, no, it’s up to them.
“Not so long ago I was in Pakistan, I had a meeting with Musharraf, I talked to 700 of his top people in a seminar. Two weeks later he went to make peace with India. Now I didn’t tell him to make peace with India, but from talks in the seminar he realised the need to be constructive, how to design a way forward.”
As he speaks, he points to one of his more than 60 books called Conflicts, lying on the table in front of him. “It happens to be here by chance,” he says. “In the old days of the Soviet Union, I was at a meeting in the Kremlin, of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Politburo, and the chairman had that book in front of him with lots of notes in the margin…a senior politician in Kazakhstan also told me in the days of Perestroika your books were top reading. So…these things have an effect.”
One of his most widespread thinking methods is what he calls the Six Thinking Hats. He wrote a book, bearing the same name, in 1990 which promoted the idea of metaphorically wearing colour-coded hats to encourage group synergy.
Another name for this method is ‘parallel thinking.’ In a nutshell, people are asked to abandon argument in the dialectical sense and ‘wear’ six hats. The white one represents information; the red one represents feelings and emotions; the black one for caution and critical thinking; the yellow one for optimistic thinking; the green hat for the creative side of the brain and the blue hat represents the ‘process control, the management of thinking.’ In this way everyone would be “speaking a common language, thinking in the same direction, promoting teamwork and putting aside the ego.”
Nobel peace winners, mathematicians, economists and CEOs of giant multinationals laud his methods and become loyal disciples, spreading Dr de Bono’s message around the globe. The International Astronomical Union even named a planet after de Bono in recognition of his contribution to humanity. But book reviewers tend to bash his work in the harshest of ways. He tends to dismiss them as “silly idiots.”
Anthony Daniels of The Telegraph wrote of de Bono’s ‘Textbook of Wisdom’: “I have seldom read a book more thoroughly banal than this one.” Writing about Parallel Thinking on the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway wrote in 1994: “As ever with de Bono, the whole is produced with breathtaking arrogance.”
His harshest critic, William Harston of The Independent, ridiculed de Bono’s anecdote that the Innuit language had a word meaning “I like you very much, but I would not want to go seal hunting with you.”
“Well,” Harston wrote, “the English language has a word that means: ‘I have listened to what you have to say and I understand the points you are trying to make, but I find your argument utterly unconvincing. That word is ‘bullshit,’ and this book is full of it.”
“To tell you the truth I don’t regard these as critics, because they are people who have their own jealousies, their own problems,” de Bono says. “When I talk to top level people, each year I’m meeting with Nobel Prize economists, top mathematicians and so on… they understand fully…
they say ‘yes what you’re talking about makes perfect sense.’ So when you get someone who doesn’t understand… they have their own little axe to grind. I don’t treat it as criticism.
“The other point is you have to look at reality, at what happens when people use my ideas. A company in Canada that makes medical equipment - NVS - did a very careful costing exercise; the first year they used my six thinking hats technique and they saved $20 million.
“Now that’s reality. The same with the Australian cricket team. Statoil in Norway had a problem with an oil rig that cost them $100,000 a day, they had been thinking about it for three weeks and hadn’t got anywhere; one of my trainers went to do some parallel thinking – in 12 minutes they had a solution that saved them $10 million. Siemens say they have reduced their product development time by 50 per cent.”
Siemens also laid off thousands of people.
“Well, yes, there are times in business when you have to restructure, and we all know that.”
The General Workers’ Union is also de Bono’s client – it is a union which kept parroting Alfred Sant’s opposition to EU membership despite Europe’s social charter favouring workers. That doesn’t sound much like they’re doing lateral or any kind of thinking at all.
“I haven’t discussed what happens there…
I don’t know …
I only depend on what people tell me…
there are things going on which people don’t tell me,” de Bono replies. “In Australia I’m on the economic advisory council of the government of Victoria. We had a meeting and afterwards this man came up to me and said ‘I read your book when I was a young man, changed my thinking, as a result I won a Nobel Prize.’
“Another example – a small Swedish pharmaceutical company called Pharmacia – I worked with them for three years, in those three years profits increased tenfold, the market capitalisation increased twenty fold, and about nine months ago they joined up with Pfeizer – which is the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world.”
The problem with the Six Thinking Hats is that he tends to overlook the fact that there are different interests involved in every negotiation, and that power is inevitably exercised whenever a decision is taken. He replies with yet another example.
“In Canada there’s a growing company. The workers were going on strike when someone introduced the Six Hats. The strike was twice aborted, at the third time, the union said to management ‘we will not negotiate with you unless we use the six hats.’ Unions are very much in favour. Unison – one of the biggest unions in England uses it a lot. People who genuinely want to move forward are very interested. People who say ‘I want to exert my power to get more than I deserve’ of course are not interested.”
Every decision involves a power process.
“No, not necessarily. There are people who genuinely say ‘we have a grievance, we want to sort out this problem,’ whatever it may be. If they don’t have a good negotiating framework then they have to rely on power to do that, but only because they don’t have a negotiating framework.
“In South Africa, between seven different tribes, there used to be 210 fights a month. After we taught thinking to the illiterate miners, the number of fights dropped to just four a month – a huge change of behaviour. These are very real changes.”
Dr de Bono says language is one of the biggest barriers to human thinking, “because every word in language came in at a relative state of ignorance and is fixed in language as a concept and forces us to look at the world in that particular way.”
That’s why he likes inventing words, such as “po,” a word somewhere between “either” and “or” (nothing to do with Po the Teletubby). His latest word is “waffo” and he’s promoting it among Australian school children.
It’s a concept which is intended as an alternative to the idea of “cool,” which de Bono says is very negative among children.
“About two years ago I was visiting this primary school in England on the day before Guy Fawkes Day, and one of the six-year-olds had drawn this picture of Guy Fawkes about to blow up the House of Commons saying ‘Guy Fawkes is very cool.’
“Now I explored this concept around the world among youngsters. Cool has no moral dimension at all. There’s a cool murderer, cool rapist, cool gangster – nothing to do with morals, just to do with style. It probably comes from American slave culture, when slaves had no political power, no authority, the only power they could have was personality, the only personality power they could have was to be disdainful, I’m not affected, this doesn’t touch me, that is cool.
“The idiom was then spread through jazz. As a culture for youngsters this is very negative. The coolest person around is a corpse, very cool, very non-contributive. So I’m introducing in Australia a new culture for youngsters called ‘warm form’, in short ‘waffo.’ You’re so confident you can afford to smile, you can help, it’s much more outgoing, contributing and so on. So what I’ve done with an Australian newspaper was to publish an invitation, inviting youngsters to write their definition, their understanding of what that would be, I’m going to collect the best ones, they’re being paid a prize of US$500 dollars each, and we’ll put them together in a book. As an alternative idiom, it is in no way going to replace ‘cool,’ but it is an alternative to ‘cool’.”
We still have to see whether de Bono’s new vocabulary will stick for long, but one thing is for sure: his name will remain written in the stars. Hats off to Dr de Bono!





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