Edward De Bono
This article first appeared September 1, 2010.
Today we are thrilled to be speaking with world-renowned author Edward De Bono, who is globally known as the godfather of creative thinking. In a fascinating interview, De Bono explains why entrepreneurs and managers around the world are not doing enough to foster creative thinking in their organisations, reveals why organisations need a chief ideas officer and provides a unique solution to Australia’s hung parliament impasse. Edward, can we start with a definition of creative thinking?
First of all creative thinking at the end of it has to have a real value. Now, the reason I say that is too many people believe creativity is just being different for the sake of being different and that’s not good enough. In the end you have to say that’s a real value so that’s very important. Creative thinking means doing something which is new, has not been done before and yet which delivers value. And there’s a mathematical need for creativity, because as we go through life and get more and more information we build up a model, we add to it, add to it, add to it, suddenly the point comes where we’ve really got enough information to completely restructure the model and look at things differently.
Are entrepreneurs naturally good at creative thinking?
Well the answer is yes in the sense that they probably would not have been entrepreneurs unless they had some idea. So the answer is yes, of course the personality characteristics of an entrepreneur are pretty important too. But the question is whether they go on being creative and that is a different matter. The answer is I would say often usually yes, but not necessarily.
Following on from that, are entrepreneurs good at encouraging creative thinking in their own businesses or teams?
Well, that I’m not sure about. I think they might be good at listening to new ideas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually encourage them. So I have an in-between position on that. I wouldn’t say they’re not good but I wouldn’t say they’re exceptionally good at encouraging it.
What are some of the things an entrepreneur can do to foster creative thinking?
I think first of all to ask people around them and their staff to think about certain things. Have a sort of hit list which everyone can see on their computers, on the noticeboard or whatever. Ask people for new ideas about this, whether it’s marketing, whether it’s product, whether it’s service, whether it’s finance - ask people to focus on it and come up with ideas. Mostly people don’t focus on something because they’re not asked to focus on it. So having a hit list is a big step.
And the second step is having someone in the organisation that’s designated to listen to or receive ideas, because having to persuade your immediate boss about something they are not very interested in doesn’t make much sense. So a chief ideas officer or someone to whom you go to with an idea and say “listen, I’ve got this idea” and he encourages you.
Your ideas officer would be there to put them forward and show his own production. But you need something of the sort, because people just think ideas drop like apples from a tree on your head and it happens by chance. But making a deliberate attempt can be quite productive.
Is it something that works best where you have a meeting and actively try and concentrate on idea creation for a set period? Or does it need to be systemic and ongoing?
Well, it probably needs to be more systemic. I remember once working for a bank, I can’t remember which one, and they have a rule that every morning between 9.00 and 9.30 is thinking time. No meetings are scheduled, factories don’t put calls through, you’re just supposed to sit and think. Not a bad idea.
When you go to an organisation, do you try and advise them to set something up like that?
Not particularly. I advise them usually on the techniques of creativity and having a chief ideas officer or something like that, but it depends on the culture of the organisation, what particular way they try to do things. But I would say creativity needs to be taken as seriously as legal matters or finance. And it’s not just a matter of well we’re all bright, we all have ideas from time to time. That’s much too weak.
As you travel the world, do you feel there is enough emphasis placed on creativity?
No, there’s not. There’s a lot of lip service placed on it but not much actual structure or effort. A lot of people say “oh yes, we’re very creative, that’s the most important thing, innovation” and so on and so on, but actually not much happens.
And why do you think that is? Is it just because it’s too hard?
I think there’s an inherent contradiction. You see good executives in an organisation are good at taking onboard the cultural idioms, the values of that organisation. Now that’s what makes them good executives, so for them, to think as it were outside the box is a contradiction. So it’s very hard for someone who’s very good at doing exactly what the organisation wants and is of value to the organisation, to think differently.
That’s why in a sense I don’t like the term “out of the box” because that means the other thing is in the box which is very unfair because it wouldn’t get you anywhere. So I much prefer main-track thinking, which is powerful and effective, and off-track thinking for the different thinking.
So it’s contradiction that people who are good at the main-track naturally are not good at the off-track. One of the ways around is that if you said, okay we’re going to employ and off-track thinker, you probably would have paid a lot of money and you only use him occasionally. So one of the processes that I’m setting up, because I’m tired of travelling, is thinking at a distance. So an organisation would say to me, okay we’ve got this area, we need some new ideas or something and I would give them some provocations on new ideas. Because it’s inherently difficult within an organisation for an effective executive to be off-track or out of the box.
So outsourcing your creativity?
Yes exactly, outsourcing creativity.
So where an organisation spots someone who’s a really good creative thinker, what do they do? Do they need to almost safeguard them and give them time and space to develop ideas?
The answer is yes. Obviously they’re frightened of doing that because they say if he’s already being a little creative and we encourage them they’ll become much too creative and want to change everything, the shape of the teacups in the canteen and everything. So they’re a bit worried about doing that, but certainly in terms of communication, absolutely. Be willing to listen to them, put things before them that need new thinking.