Are you thinking now? According to Edward de Bono, you probably aren't. The world's foremost advocate of the development of thinking skills, de Bono says that most people do very little real thinking.
De Bono has spent a lot of time trying to jog people out of familiar, habitual patterns of thought into more productive avenues of intellectual exploration. The author of 20 books on thinking techniques, he invented the term lateral thinking—now an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. The idea is that most problems can be solved better by avoiding the obstacles than by tackling them head on. He teaches a number of mental tricks designed to concentrate the analytical powers of the mind on improving the situation rather than solving a problem.
As a consultant, de Bono flies around the world to meet with large corporations and governments when they need a dose of his lateral thinking. Prudential, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and 3M are a few of the groups that have enlisted his aid when they could not see their way out of dilemmas. IBM is so enamored of his skills that he has been asked to teach them to its top management.
De Bono's books have been on bestseller lists all around the world. He likes to point out that his New Think sold 400,000 hard-cover copies just in Japan—better, per capita, than Love Story in the United States. He reports that 30 percent of the high schools in Great Britain, as well as about 6,000 other schools in various countries, now use his thinking courses. According to the Sunday Times of London, lateral thinking has become "the biggest craze since Scrabble." He has two BBC television series to his credit: one, a 13-part presentation, The Greatest Thinkers; the other, a 10-part series aptly named Dr. de Bono's Course on Thinking.
Most Americans are still more interested in Scrabble than in lateral thinking, but de Bono intends to change that. An American branch of his CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust) Foundation has been set up in New York under the leadership of the world's first Ph.D. in lateral thinking, Michael de Saint-Arnaud. Teachers of the CoRT methods are appearing all over the United States.
De Bono is an aggressive marketer of his ideas. His critics have called his organization the "McDonald's of thinking," but de Bono does not take great offense. In fact, he emphasizes the importance of a sense of humor in effective thinking.
And many of de Bono's solutions to traditional problems are funny. Once he was brought in to do some lateral thinking about a problem with a corporation's New York skyscraper, and his unusual solution was soon taken up by architects of other buildings. The problem was insufficient elevator service for the large building, whose owners were being forced to consider a prohibitively expensive new elevator system. De Bono's quick answer was to install mirrors around the elevators. It may sound funny, but it worked. Passengers either watched themselves or others, and there were no more complaints about long lines and crowded elevators.
Many of de Bono's solutions are not so readily accepted, though. He attributes it to a lack of lateral thinking, to people being institutionalized on the inside. For instance, former mayor of New York John Lindsay once asked de Bono's help with crime and housing problems. His recommendations—that street gangs be given rewards when crime dropped in their turf and that residential property taxes be eliminated—were never implemented.
Lateral thinking does yield interesting results in those who master the techniques. A repertory of 60 basic "tools" are taught to students. They include "PMI"—listing pluses, minuses, and interesting points in a situation—and "FIP"—determining first important priorities.
A group of 13-year-olds in Venezuela, where the CoRT system is being taught at all levels of school and the military, were asked to use their lateral thinking skills to come up with a way to improve that country's low agricultural productivity. After an hour of consultation among themselves, they decided that if the government would stop fixing prices and farmers took part in more direct marketing, the availability of profits would take care of the problem on its own.
De Bono has been described in the Christian Science Monitor as "handsome and athletic…with a patrician air of elegance. He is warm, modest, highly articulate, and witty." It is obvious that he has charisma. "Thinking" REASON readers are probably wondering whether he is just another salesman jumping on the "self-help" bandwagon. His credentials would indicate otherwise. Born in Malta, he earned an M.D. there. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and earned a Ph.D. there and at Cambridge in psychology. He has served on the faculties of Oxford, London, and Harvard Universities. He is presently professor of investigative medicine at Cambridge.
De Bono emphasizes that the most valuable resource the world has is people and that it is time to make sure that people have the freedom to think for themselves. He doesn't get involved in political or ideological debates. But according to Saint-Arnaud, de Bono's disciple in the United States, the CoRT belief is that as communications technology improves and people acquire the tools to think for themselves, systems such as democracy, socialism, and communism—where a few do the thinking for the many, who are, if anything, asked simply to vote on other people's ideas—will be replaced by societies of individuals who think for themselves.
De Bono simply notes: "If you don't think for yourself, someone else will think for you."
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Thinking Tutor".