New Delhi: Sell them to Playboy,” said the amiable 77-year-old guru of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, after posing for pictures against a colourful backdrop at a Gurgaon hotel recently. The veteran creative thinker (and qualified physician), who believes that “thinking” must be taught as a subject in schools, was in India to give lectures under the Guru Mantra Series organized by Global Village Unlimited. He spoke about his big idea for India in an interview. Edited excerpts:
You must have come to India many times. How do you think the country has changed?
I haven’t counted, but I first came when Mountbatten was the Viceroy because he was a family friend. So it was way back… I haven’t got enough chance to analyse the country.
Creativity in organizations—isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Organization essentially means discipline…
You are right in a sense because people in an organization who are supposed to be very good, are people who have absorbed the values, culture and idiom of that organization. That’s what we call main track thinking. Creativity requires some new track thinking. So it is quite difficult for people in an organization to have what the Americans call out-of-the- box thinking.
Edward de Bono, author and management trainer
However, the processes and techniques of creativity can be learnt, practised and used. One of my trainers running a workshop in South Africa generated 21,000 ideas in an afternoon by using one of my tools.
You started talking about thinking many years ago. Isn’t the idea of lateral thinking outdated?
It is being used in thousands of schools. The Chinese government is doing a pilot project in five provinces. If they like the results they will put it in 680,000 schools. Teaching my thinking as a separate subject in school increases performance in every subject by between 30% and 100%, be it maths, science or history. I was told by a Nobel Prize-winning economist a few weeks ago that in a meeting recently, top economists in the United States were using my Six Thinking Hats (de Bono’s best-selling treatise). So the concept is still relevant.
You never thought of a seventh thinking hat?
No. The reason is that the brain can hold six or maximum seven things in perception. After that it starts subdividing. It cannot hold them as a whole. I said six or maximum seven—so that leaves a reserve of one. If there is some real need for a seventh one, then I will put it in. It (the need) hasn’t come up.
Are you launching any new ideas?
I am launching ideas-at-a-distance so that I don’t have to travel so much. Under this, organizations can send me the areas where they want ideas and I would generate new ideas for them.
But I have a very big idea for India. The economy in India is not progressing as fast as China’s. One of the reasons is that India is more complex and the society is divided into castes and groups. People are so busy adjusting to the complexity that there’s no possibility of moving as fast as China, where there is centralized communism.
So India is the perfect place to create a new caste called PCCT that stands for positive constructive and creative thinking. We could have a small group of people who may have to pass a little test and who could see themselves as positive creative constructive thinkers. So instead of criticizing things, they will have a self-image of being positive creative thinkers. Most people spend their time just attacking other things.
In fact, all governments should have a minister of thinking who would look at the thinking of other departments. He could also generate ideas and try them out in opinion polls. If everyone likes them, the government can use the ideas and if no one does, the government can say, “That’s just our silly minister of thinking who has no responsibility.” It allows the possibility of trying out new ideas without getting blamed.
Even organizations can have a thinking officer. Thinking needs to be taken as seriously as finance or legal affairs.
Any particular race or country that’s more creative than the others?
It’s a difficult question to answer. The Americans are not especially good at creativity, but they are very good at taking an idea and using it. Other countries may have good ideas, but they don’t use them. In the last century, most of the good ideas came from the United Kingdom. That’s official. There’s no particular country that’s more creative than the others.
Have you ever related your theory with Indian philosophy?
No. My ideas are based on my background in medicine and research on complicated systems, the neuro networks in brain. My book The Mechanism of the Mind describes this. The book was read by the leading physicist in the world who got a Nobel Prize. He commissioned a team of top computer experts to simulate what’s there in the book. They said it works exactly as I predicted. Physicists and mathematicians are always very supportive. Architects and musicians also use my ideas.
What’s the difference between creativity and innovation?
Innovation is putting into action something which is new for your organization. You may have borrowed, copied or stolen it from somewhere else. Or you may have generated it creatively. So creativity is the generation of new ideas and innovation is the use of new ideas.
Can creativity and lateral thinking be cultivated in day-to-day lives?
The answer is yes, why not? If you’ve quarrelled with your husband, you can use creativity to resolve it. It’s part of thinking.
Any habit an individual should cultivate to unlock creativity?
One of the problems I think is that very often we are “blocked by openness”. That sounds like a paradox. But what it means is that because you are working on the usual concepts, it blocks us from having different ones. The habit to develop is to occasionally challenge ideas. You can say, “Yes, this idea is fine, it works, but if we block it for a moment let’s see what ideas we can generate.”
Any company or product you think is very creative?
Difficult to say. Advertising people believe they are very creative, but often they are not. They are very experienced, yes, but it is not the same. It’s difficult to pick products or companies.
I have worked with IBM and DuPont. When Nokia decided to start making mobile phones—Nokia was a timber company making toilet paper I think—they invited me to Helsinki to talk to the entire group of 70 people. The day-long seminar made them creative. As a result, they grew and grew…and are now biggest in the world with 34% share of the world handset market. They were from a tiny country with a population of five million and with no history of electronics at all. But they learnt to be creative.
Are your children also in the business of thinking?
One son is on the board of Financial Times and he makes a lot of money. He gets paid about four times as much as the prime minister. He is much brighter than the prime minister, of course. The other one is an architect.