Did you hear the one about the old businessman who dies and goes to hell? Bumps into an elderly colleague down in the furnace happily seated with a voluptuous woman on his knee. Guy says to his mate, “This can't be hell, you're not being punished, you're having fun!” To which the friend replies, “It is punishment — for her!”
Thinking about new possibilities, as much so in the business life as in any afterlife, sometimes helps.
Edward de Bono, the man who both introduced the term “lateral thought” to the English language and regularly retells this gag to illustrate what he has been on about ever since coining the original expression in the late 1960s, is booked to visit New Zealand next week as a guest of the local Human Resources Institute to offer more of his offbeat wit and perspectives at a time when each have been in notably short international supply.
Speaking with the NBR ahead of his arrival, Dr de Bono (76) said that uncreative thinking, rather than the likes of environmental degradation or the state of the global banking system, remained the gravest threat to mankind.
By this he means thought that is merely adequate, or what he calls “excellent but not enough,” the kind of wheezy mental effort that one usually doesn’t stumble across in the 70-plus motivational books he has published over the past 42 years — the big idea of which is that western man has been hobbled by an over-reliance on logic at the expense of perceptual possibilities — for an increasingly appreciative corporate audience.
The Oxbridge-trained scholar has held an array of professorships at leading universities on both sides of the Atlantic. This year he had his business-guru status confirmed by the European Union, which has appointed him as an ambassador for the EU’s current Year of Creativity and Innovation.
The government of New Zealand made as much of him eight years ago when Dr de Bono to New Zealand was a keynote business speaker at the 2001 Knowledge Wave conference in Auckland.
An example of the kind of abrupt idea that has made him a hit on speaking circuit would be his take on the various Middle East conflicts. The good doctor’s prescription would be to airlift over tons of … Marmite.
Such a “Middle Yeast” solution, he has argued, could help remedy the widespread regional irritability that he believes might owe more to a lack of zinc brought about by people eating only unleavened bread than any geopolitical difference.
While Dr de Bono’s crisp way of looking at old problems might be refreshing, the man himself sometimes doubts whether sufficient numbers of listeners take him at his word.
“I’m not really optimistic about this, you know, because very few people see the problem. We’re very complacent, very self-satisfied. Having been at some of the leading universities — Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard — I would say the attention given to what I’m saying about possibilities is minimal if not totally absent.
“I know the situation is improving in some countries — I know there are schools in New Zealand now where my work is starting to be taught in some classrooms — but people don’t see this lack of thinking as a problem. We’re content to leave the design aspect of thinking to just a few individuals, most of whom we don’t listen to anyway.”
Could it be because we also happen to live in an information-rich era in which people and businesses are tempted to believe they can computer-search their way out of any problematic situation?
“You’re absolutely right. I work with lots of big corporations, where people think computers are so wonderful —feed the information in, they say, let the computer analyse it, and we’ll just make out decisions and set our strategy. But that’s extremely dangerous. Unless you develop the habit of looking at the information in different ways, you’re trapped in the very old concepts.”
All the same, Dr de Bono’s ideas have obtained popular purchase among some business organisations, at least those for whom having the best mental tools to generate new ideas is as important as the practical ability to implement, follow through and deliver on them.
What would he be telling them during his half-day seminar at the Sky City Convention Centre next Thursday about the current recession?
“Well, a recession is rather like saying that if there’s a sudden downpour then all those people with umbrellas stand to benefit. If something affects everyone, then those who have got a way forward have got a competitive advantage.”
He said he returned to New Zealand with few abiding impressions from that last major national gathering he addressed here in 2001.
“I’m invited to a lot of events, you know,” he said. “Unless there are spectacular belly-dancers at these things, I don’t tend to remember