Thursday, August 7, 2008

New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking in the Generation of New Ideas by Edward de Bono

It's 19th century England, and you're the beautiful daughter of a man deeply in debt. The man's moneylender, an old and repulsive man, offers a deal: Let me marry your daughter and I'll forgive all the debt. You'll be spared going to prison, and your daughter won't starve.

The man and his daughter were horrified. To convince them, the moneylender proposed letting fate decide the matter. He told them he would put a black pebble and a white pebble in a bag, and the girl would pick one of the pebbles at random. If she chose the white pebble, the debt would be cancelled and she could stay with her father. If she chose the black pebble, she would become the moneylender's wife and the debt would be cancelled.

Seeing no alternative, they reluctantly agreed. As they were standing on a path strewn with pebbles, the moneylender bent to pick up two to put into the bag.

Unfortunately, the alert girl saw to her horror that he selected two black pebbles to put into the bag.

If you were this girl, what would you do?

And this is how New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking in the Generation of New Ideas begins. Author Edward de Bono compares and contrasts what he calls vertical thinking (traditional thought processes which use logic and reasonable assumptions, seen by many as the only form of "respectable" thinking) to what he calls lateral thinking, which involves looking at a subject in unusual, illogical and even irrational ways to arrive at more creative solutions.

If lateral thinking, rather than vertical thinking, is the source of most of the world's brilliant insights and inventions, how can you train yourself to use it to your advantage, especially when it seems this type of thinking often occurs by accident or pure chance? de Bono describes several techniques you can use, such as chance, games, random associations and other approaches, to harvest ideas and achieve greater creativity.

There are some true jewels of insight in this brief 156-page book. Unfortunately, you've got to wade through quite a bit of passive voice and convoluted phrasing to get to them. I wish that this author, who is such a champion of counterintuitive thinking, had just this once reached a more traditional conclusion: that his ideas would find a larger audience if they were better organized and more clearly articulated.

Furthermore, many of these concepts are described much more engagingly in books like Blink and The Black Swan. I'd start with those books first, and if the subject matter truly interests you, then you can move on to New Think.

Here's the conclusion to the story of the moneylender and the beautiful daughter:

The daughter gritted her teeth, reached into the bag, and pulled out a pebble. But before she opened her hand and looked at it, she casually dropped it on the ground, where it was immediately lost among all the other pebbles on the path.

"Oh, how clumsy of me!" she said. "But never mind--if you look into the bag you will be able to tell which pebble I took by the color of the one that is left."

The banker, unable to protest because it would prove his dishonesty, had no choice but to cancel the debt and let the girl stay with her father.


The P & A Food Chronicles said...

i'm going to read the fords story sounds interesting!!

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi P&A!
I'm just finishing up the Fords biography and it was excellent. Truly excellent. I'll have a review of it up shortly.