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Lateral thinking

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 36: Lateral thinking


We cannot complete the millennium ‘year of creativity’ without visiting a major force in British creative thinking: Edward de Bono. Although Maltese in origin, de Bono has doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge and is most famous for his addition of the term ‘lateral thinking’ to the English language in his 1967 book, ‘The Use of Lateral Thinking’. Since then, he has written around 40 books on creativity and thinking. This article is a whistle-stop tour of some of his more notable methods.


Lateral thinking

A way of understanding lateral thinking is through its opposite, vertical thinking. A vertical thinker is analytical, careful and precise, taking the data around a problem and analysing it with defined methodologies to find logical solutions. A lateral thinker understands vertical thinking, but choses to deliberately outside of this bounded thought process. One reason that you have to dig in many other places is that creativity is like a joke: you do not get it until the punchline at the end. It is not an easy concept to teach and a good way to learn is through examples. Here is one that de Bono used in his original book:

There is a girl who is to be gambled by her father against a heavy debt. If she draws a white pebble from a bag containing one white and one black pebble, the debt is cleared and she is freed. If, however, the black pebble is drawn out, she must go with the merchant. The dilemma is that she sees the merchant sneak two black pebbles into the bag, so what should she do? The vertical thinker considers all options and concludes that she should say what she has seen. The lateral thinker, however, thinks beyond this solution that, at best, leaves the girl with a 50% chance of  freedom. If we think about the pebble that is left behind, which is black, all she has to do is pull out one pebble, and whilst keeping concealed, clumsily drop it where it cannot be found, then say ‘All we need to do is look at the pebble that is left.’

Lateral thinking is thus very much about standing back, looking at the big picture and understanding concepts. It also requires that you focus in on the parts that have perhaps been overlooked, challenging assumptions and seeking alternatives.



Lateral thinking is like humour: you only get it afterwards



Overall, de Bono has a radical approach to creativity. Rather than improve on existing ideas, he prefers to get out of the current thinking trough and go dig somewhere completely different. He also recognises that we need both a serious prod and psychological assistance in doing this.

‘Po’ was a word he coined to mean ‘provocative operation’ and is used as a prefix to a radical statement designed to provoke new ideas. This helps both the speaker and the listener. The listener gets a warning: here comes a radical statement: please do not reject it out of hand, but rather use it as a stimulus for new ideas. The speaker thus gains permission and forgiveness for the radical statement.

Thus, when considering how to clean a car, I might say ‘Po: the car cleans itself’, which might lead to ideas of low friction paint or a garage with a waterfall across on the entrance (useful and decorative).

You can create ‘Po’ statements by reversing situtations, exaggerating, distorting or just being fanciful. Po: the car gets so dirty you cannot see it. Po: the dirt cleans the car. Po: who needs a car?


Six thinking hats

When working with other people, sometimes we want to give ideas, pass comment, and so on. The problem is that we do not have an easy way of saying ‘This is just an idea, please accept it as such.’ De Bono offers both a method of solving this problem and also six common situations where we might have need of such explanation of what we are about to say. He uses the principle of ‘hats’ so people can say things like, ‘With my red hat, it looks like…’. This also, of course, encourages people to deliberately use these six modes of thinking where otherwise they may be trapped by habitual use of only one. The six hats are:

·       White hat: neutral information (think of purity).

·       Red hat: emotions and hunches (think of warm fire).

·       Black hat: judging and evaluating (think of the judge’s black robes).

·       Yellow hat: optimism and positive views (think of sunshine).

·       Green hat: ideas and creativity (think of vegetation growth).

·       Blue hat: big picture and control (think of the sky above).




When you have created a set of new ideas, you may want to decide which is best to carry forward. PMI stands for Plus, Minus and Interesting and is an evaluation tool that is simple extension of looking at ‘pros and cons’. It recognises that as well as good and bad points, some things cannot be categorised and are simply ‘interesting’.


It worth noting that de Bono is not enthusiastic about brainstorming, preferring individual thinking to the psychological minefield of working with other people. If you want to investigate his ideas more, probably the best single book is ‘Serious Creativity’ as it summarises many of his ideas.


Next time: TRIZ (part 1)


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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