In the memorial event in his honour at the Edward de Bono Institute of the University of Malta, in May 2023, I offer a personal perspective, reflecting on his life and his contributions to creativity
Edward de Bono, is perhaps the most influential communicator on the nature of creative thinking in recent times. His fame came early through his book Lateral Thinking, first published in 1970. It was to accompany him through his long and distinguished life, perhaps eventually defining him through its impact around the world.
It was some years later before I met Edward for the first time. In 1970, I had begun to develop interest in his ideas while working as a scientist inside a research laboratory in what was known as the New Products and Development Group.
A few years later I joined another R&D group at Manchester Business School to take forward understanding about ways of stimulating creativity. I took with my copy of Lateral Thinking. By then, Edward deBono was becoming a celebrity in the field, with a unique style of communicating his ideas seated at an overhead projection system scribbling out his diagrams on a never-ending transparent plastic scroll.
His language and imagery captured his audiences. Too often, our thinking processes resemble someone digging a hole more and more deeply, vertical thinking whereas what was needed was finding a different place to dig a hole. I’ll return to this later.
In the preface to Lateral Thinking he states that in schools
‘Creativity is usually treated as something desirable which is to be brought about by vague exhortation…this book is about lateral thinking which is the process of using information to bring about creativity’.
He continues, ‘Lateral thinking is closely related to insight, creativity and humour. All four processes have the same basis. But whereas insight, creativity and humour can only be prayed for, lateral thinking is a more deliberate process’.
So there we have it. He was setting out a programme for the deliberate process to support or even replace the capricious process leading to creative ideas.
De Bono always presented his thoughts with stunning clarity and impact. Perhaps closest in core concept for me was the work of Arthur Koestler, himself a celebrity intellectual. In his classic book The Act of Creation, published a few years earlier, in 1964, Koestler brought us the concept of creativity as ‘the bisociation two mental frames resulting in an aha or eureka moment’.
Koestler could write with clarity and insight, but made no effort to reach out beyond an elite audience. His very impressive book gained admiration at the time, but in time became a valuable footnote to creativity theory.
Thinking Fast and Slow
A more recent example of a book dealing with theorising creativity rather than its deliberate stimulation is Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman. Like Koestler, provides a book in the academic tradition, with extensive reference and notes. But in its five hundred pages only a brief section of less than ten pages deals directly with Creativity.
I am not downplaying the work through which won the Nobel Prize for his Prospect theory developed jointly with Amos Tversky and which integrates cognitive psychology with Economics.
DeBono could have justified his own deep understanding of cognitive processing through his medical training in a more formal way. Instead he provided the basic thinking tools for the layperson to reach new insights. Ways of digging not deeper but in the right place.
Not a ‘bisociation of matrices’ in sight. Concealed in the Kahneman & Tversky work however was a theory confirming that human decision making was not exclusively rational.
This is a conclusion implicit in much of deBono’s writings. The one approach won a Nobel prize. The other continues to influence a far wider audience, with its practical suggestions for what I like to refer as ‘Everyday Creativity’ a term popularised by the American Ruth Richards, in her book of that name.