The Exclusive Interview With Dr. Edward de Bono

After over 30 years of writing, lecturing, inventing, and consulting, Dr. Edward de Bono does not stand still. He continues to travel the world to promote ways of thinking that empower people and institutions to design a better future.

He can be found a mile underground working with South African platinum miners to help them think constructively and collaboratively at work and at home. He carries his message and thinking techniques to schoolchildren in Malta and to business and government leaders in Hong Kong. He consults with US Navy admirals and with negotiators in political hot spots across the globe.

What drives him to pursue this daunting schedule when he could easily retire to one of his island retreats? How does he evaluate the current state of thinking in the world? Are schools teaching children to think better? What are the next steps in “changing the way the world thinks”? How did he find his way into this remarkable lifework?

Advanced Practical Thinking Training (APTT) editor Victoria Carver asked Dr. de Bono about all this at a meeting of APTT Certified Master Trainers in April of 2000 in St. Charles, Illinois.

Victoria Carver: Your Six Thinking Hats method for individual and collaborative thinking has had a profound impact on the way meetings are held, decisions reached, products designed and evaluated, and crises resolved in large and small corporations, governments, and families around the world. It’s deceptively simple, yet powerful. How did you come up with the Six Thinking Hats?

Edward de Bono: Six Hats was actually just written up one afternoon. I had to write an article for something. I tried to imagine a situation for creative thinking, but if the environment was such that the greatest motivation of everyone around was to fuel their ego by saying, “That won’t work,” and “That’s wrong,” “That’s not going to happen,” and so on and so on – until we could move them through that, it wasn’t going to happen. To move out of such an entrenched negative mode of thinking by saying, “Don’t do it,” doesn’t make sense. But to say, “There is a time and place where that sort of critical thinking is perfectly correct, but other times where it’s not,” might work. So it started out as a reaction to the negativity. That’s why, in fact, in my first Six Hats edition, I was probably a little too harsh on the Black Hat – because it was so overused. And then I changed that in the more recent edition to explain that it’s a very valuable Hat, but it’s just overused.

Victoria Carver: So in writing the article you had to come up with a way to corral the critical thinking into one space – under the Black Hat. But how did you come up with the other hats?

Edward de Bono: Well, you see, if you say there is a time and place for the Black Hat, but not all the time, then what happens at the other times? If, for example, you then mix up the feelings, which I labeled the Red Hat, with other kinds of thinking, then you never know when you’re getting feelings and when you’re getting something else. So you separate the Red Hat and express the feelings intentionally in their own time and place. Following the same procedure with the remaining kinds of thinking, you end up getting everyone’s best thinking from every angle on the topic and removing the ego-driven argument.

Victoria Carver: Were you always, even as a child, looking for different ways of doing things?

Edward de Bono: Different ways of doing things? Yes – inventions and so on – in that sense, yes. In fact, in school I was the only boy who had his personal key to the chemistry laboratory; I could go in any time I liked. So, in terms of exploring things, yes. And then in medicine I was working on more complicated things – circulatory systems, respiration, and so on – and had to develop ideas on self-organizing systems. That led to the idea of how the brain makes patterns – asymmetric patterns. And if that was so, what did creativity really mean? From that came the idea of interventions. Then later on came the notion that it is very difficult to be creative if everyone around is in the judgment mode. And from that came parallel thinking and the Six Hats.

Victoria Carver: So, when you went into medicine, did you have some vision of what you were going to pursue, and then it got changed by what you discovered in your research?

Edward de Bono: No. When I went into medicine, I continued a family tradition. My father’s in medicine, my grandfather’s in medicine, my three uncles are in medicine. Also, in Malta, where I first started, it was one of the few international subjects. In other words, you could learn medicine in Malta and use it in many other countries, whereas if you studied law it was not international. So, there were a number of reasons. But the advantage of having studied medicine is that I’m dealing with biological systems, and if you come to creativity from, for instance, psychology, which many people do, it offers very little help. Psychology is all description. There’s no underlying system from which you can derive mechanisms and interventions, only descriptions. Then if you come to creativity from the artistic side, you may have some of the right attitudes, but there’s not much you can do except to say, “I feel inspired,” and “That’s the way it happens with me, and you’ve got to be as talented as me to make it happen.”

Victoria Carver: As a matter of fact, the term you so often use in describing innovation – the concept of “design” – is looked down upon in many art circles, as an aspect of applied or mundane art.

Edward de Bono: Exactly – quite right.~ And if you come to creativity from philosophy, you’re essentially playing word games. So the medical background was, in fact, very useful. That’s why it’s been possible to create a more systematic approach, a more formal and deliberate approach.

Victoria Carver: I imagine, for your readers or listeners, your strong background in medicine tends to jar, right from the start, their standard notions and expectations about creativity. It’s hard to predict where you might be coming from in considering the subject or where you’re headed.

Edward de Bono: That’s right. The idea is still very prevalent that creativity is just being very free and messing around and then if some idea turns up you’ll recognize it and so on, and one wonders what that has to do with the study of medicine and self-organizing systems.~ So that’s the background.

Victoria Carver: What are your priorities today? Where are you currently focusing your energy?

Edward de Bono: There are always two levels: one is in seeing things I’ve designed that are in use – where they’re being disseminated, put to effective use, being used more widely. This applies to schools, corporations, communities I encounter as I travel. In other words, seeing what’s already there being used The second level, of course, is the designing of the new, and I’m working on some new things about which I’ll be able to say more later on.

Victoria Carver: On the first level – the applications you see and hear about as you travel – what’s especially satisfying to you?

Edward de Bono: Well, for example, where school systems say “We want to put this into our schools, because it works really well” – for instance, in Ireland. In Cork, there’s been a program going on where mentors are set up for really difficult children – young criminals and so on – teaching them to think. The first phase is over, and the person from the European Union who is looking at it is saying he’s very satisfied with it. It’s working so well that it’s now being spread across Ireland. There will be 300 trainers doing that.

So that’s the kind of thing that’s extremely satisfying – seeing things happen, where people are teaching thinking, even at a very basic level, and it’s making a difference. Seeing this change people’s lives, where they feel a greater control over themselves, where it changes what they think they can do and what they think about themselves. Then on the corporate level, there’s the notion that innovation has become so necessary and that organizations and their members are more effective for doing it.

Recently, for example, I spoke at an Innovation Summit attended by about 900 people in Australia. I was sitting at the Prime Minister’s table, and this fellow came up to me and told me he’s in charge of marine biology for the whole country, with responsibility for all the fisheries and so on – a huge job. He said, “We used to have all these long meetings, and it was awful – lots of bickering and egos and so on. Well, we introduced the Six Hats and it’s the best meeting we’ve ever had.”

I hear this over and over again. And when you think that argument has been around for 2,400 years, and no one’s ever challenged it as a way of getting anywhere, it’s totally astonishing. So the more people try these other methods, the more they come back and report that it’s all so much better. And I hear the same kinds of things from people about the DATT program, the CoRT program, and so on, as this fellow reported about the Six Hats.

You see, we have this notion that if you’re generally intelligent, then whatever you do is going to be good thinking, which is simply not true. And then, our notion of thinking is recognizing standard situations and knowing the standard way of dealing with them, and then, if there is some disagreement, arguing whether it was this situation or that situation and what it should be. That sort of thinking is like the left front wheel of a motor car: there’s nothing wrong with the left front wheel unless you believe that all you need is the left front wheel. There’s something wrong with that – not with the car, but with your belief. So, again, even with the most intelligent people, their thinking is very limited.

Victoria Carver: What’s been most exciting to you among all the things you’ve seen done with your work?

Edward de Bono: Well, satisfying and exciting are not the same thing. One truly satisfying experience I had was in Heathrow Airport near London. I was in the traveler’s lounge, returning at about five in the morning from a long trip, and they have this arrangement where you can take a shower there. There’s a shower attendant who takes your name and cleans the showers and so on. And this shower attendant noticed my name and said, “de Bono – are you the gentleman who writes the books about thinking?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Oh, I read all of them!” Now that’s satisfying. This is not a person who was reading them because of his profession or because he was directed to do so – they just made sense to him. That’s refreshing and very satisfying.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the experience I had with the United States Navy. I was asked to meet with 20 admirals in Newport, Rhode Island, where we used my creative thinking methods to consider the possible effects of Y2K. We decided not much would happen, and as it turned out, not much did. But the top Navy leadership recognized the value of these methods enough to seek my assistance, and I was the only civilian and the only foreigner involved in the meeting.

Victoria Carver: I notice, from your comments in recent presentations, that you’re focusing much time and energy on children and schools. Is that a shift?

Edward de Bono: Well no, actually, I’ve always been there. I’ve put a lot of energy and interest on schools and children since 1972. And, obviously, kids grow up. But society is moving more toward putting my work in the hands of children. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, every school child is issued a copy of my book Handbook for The Positive Revolution – by the government! Because they say that if kids go through their education with a positive, constructive attitude, it’s going to be better for society. UNESCO, and the World Health Organization are working with our methods, and a one-year curriculum is being developed for dissemination over the radio to teach thinking to children in remote areas of Nigeria. Starting in September, all schools in the United Arab Emirate will be required to teach thinking using these tools.

Victoria Carver: Do you think schools will fundamentally change? How do you envision schools being, say, twenty years from now?

Edward de Bono: Well, if you look back 100 years and ask what had changed the least, I think it would have to be schools. Same subjects, same way they’re taught, same sense of importance – it’s absurd, totally absurd. I’m sure some have computers and such, but nothing much has actually changed. The problem with education is that it’s so self-protective; it’s a locked-in system.

Victoria Carver: Some educational theorists believe that with access to computers, the internet, all that information and the powerful tools in many children’s hands today, they won’t tolerate schools continuing as they are – that children themselves will force change. What do you think?

Edward de Bono: Much as don’t want to think so, I believe most of those children will and do look at it and say, “Well, it’s a game and we don’t like it, but we have to play it, so we’ll play it the best we can and move on.” And then there are the ones who are rebellious, and they don’t want to play the game and won’t. But they’ll just be treated as though, oh well they’re rebels, and will be dismissed.

It’s a bit like in my book Handbook for The Positive Revolution, where I say that the people who really have the power to change the world are the 17-year-old girls. Because all young men up to the age of about 28 want to impress them. Now, if they said, “All that macho, strutting around stuff doesn’t impress us,” then the values would change. But the weakness in my theory is all the 16-year-old girls, because they want to join that adult gang. Therefore, they will endorse the existing values in order to be accepted. So they’re in the position to change, but they’re very unlikely to change, because it serves their purpose to endorse existing values. The same is true in schools. Those who could change it say, “Well, yes, seeking to change the system is very noble, but it’s not likely to benefit us, so we’ll just play the game the way it’s written”.

Victoria Carver: As you travel the world, do you see geographic areas or particular populations which, because of their particular circumstances, present good opportunities for changing schools and thinking methods?

Edward de Bono: Somewhere like Singapore, for instance, you find considerable good will and intention. They say, “We’ve got to teach thinking, we’ve got to teach creativity.” But when it comes right down to implementation, they tend to fall back on the very old-fashioned ideas: teaching children to play the drum and to dance and saying, “Now, this is creative. Isn’t it great?” So, the will is there – the will is great at a very senior level. But when it gets filtered down, it loses all its impetus.

Victoria Carver: Let’s shift focus to APTT and the other structures in place for disseminating your work – the various institutes and foundations and so on. Where do you see gaps in coverage or a need to increase energy and other resources?

Edward de Bono: I think the awareness of what is being done – the awareness of how powerful some of the effects are – is quite low. Particularly in the United States, many people don’t know what can be done, what is being done, with what’s already out there.

Victoria Carver: Yes. In pursuing stories for the Global Exchange, over the years, we’ve run into a number of remarkable applications of the tools in a surprising variety of venues – and sometimes by people who have just read one of your books or heard you speak and have gone out and used your methods in world-changing work. One story that comes to mind is the water engineer from the UK who did the work in remote Cambodian villages using the Six Hats in a Freirean context.

Edward de Bono: Right. Well, you see, stories like that are double-edged. The benefit is in saying that these are very simple people, and these methods have made a huge difference in their lives. The negative is that many people look at a story like that and say, “That’s great, but those people are so different from us. It worked for them, but it won’t work for us.” And, you know, you can always say that about any story that comes out.

For instance, if I say that Siemans, which is the biggest company in Europe by far, has a division in which the unit chiefs are using my stuff, people say, “OK, that’s the senior people, but not the ordinary worker. It won’t work with the ordinary worker.” And if I am working with the ordinary worker, they’ll say, “Yes, they need it, but not the senior people.” So that’s the danger of any particular example – it allows someone to say, “It’s fine for them, but not me – they need it, I don’t.”

It isn’t unusual at all for me to give a talk to a diverse group of executives, and perhaps I’ll offer an example to the great success some utility company has had in using these tools, and afterward all the executives from utility companies come forward and want to know about it and are very enthused. But, the others sort of stand back as if they can’t translate that example into their own industry. In fact, it makes little difference whether you make motor cars or chocolates, when it comes down to the thinking process involved and that it takes to improve that process. But many extremely intelligent and accomplished people seem to have a hard time seeing that.

Victoria Carver: What would be an effective way to get a variety of these impressive stories out?

Edward de Bono: I think what we need is a range of really crisp paragraphs – three or four lines each – about these various examples where the methods are being put to effective use by individuals and groups, in schools, communities, homes, and so on. Then some examples of organizations, which have had experience getting results with our tools.

Victoria Carver: A collection of success stories?

Edward de Bono: They’d be more than success stories. I’d call them illustrative stories. For example, there’s [UK based Master Trainer] Russell Chalmers’ story about ABB, the large Finnish company. They used to spend 30 days each year on multi-national product planning discussions. Now, using the Six Hats, they spend two days. That’s illustrative.

Siemans reported that they cut product development time by 30% using our methods. Then there’s the story, which Diane McQuaig at [APTT North American distributor] MICA can fill you in on, in which Boeing averted a strike by bringing in a trainer to help them use the Six Hats in negotiations. Then a second time a strike was averted in the same way. The third time, the Union said to management, “We won’t negotiate unless you use the Six Hats.”

There’s a fellow in Argentina who will be coming to my creative seminar in Malta. He owns a textile factory, and on his own he took things from my book and started teaching his workers thinking. He’s been immensely successful. He’s had a 20% increase in productivity every year. He’s buying up other textile companies. And when I was having lunch with him he said to me, “I really owe you $5 million. That would be your share of my increased worth due to using your thinking.”

There are a number of these stories, and in some cases they happened some time ago and the people from the companies who shared them have moved on. But the trainers will remember them. We really need to encourage trainers to seek out these stories and get them to you when they’re fresh and the people are still there to be interviewed. Then follow these stories up with some more general points about why this is no longer a luxury – why these ways of thinking are so necessary throughout the world. This could be on the web, could appear in magazines, books and so on.

The basic story is that the human race has been going along until now on recognition, not thinking. Now, people can say, “We’ve done pretty well that way so far,” and you could say, “Yes, you have done pretty well in certain areas, particularly technical areas. But in human behavior areas, I really don’t think you’ve done very well at all.” The Renaissance was a disaster. It turned our attention backward, and ever since then we’ve been looking backward.

Victoria Carver: Recently, I’ve noticed that in the area of cognitive studies, growing out of artificial intelligence work, much is coming out about the physical nature of our thinking – that mathematics, for instance, is body-based, not a dissociated abstract system as it’s long been portrayed. That seems to be moving at last away from the Greek model of the separation of mind from body, which some religious thought has latched onto, and toward your approach of understanding thinking as growing out of the body’s self-organizing systems.

Edward de Bono: That’s true, and it’s interesting, but it misses the key thing. That sort of research and the context in which it’s done still has as its aim description. If you can provide a more precise or more accurate description, then you’ve done what you set out to do. So you have people arguing on about their descriptions, but then what do you do with that? What does it mean in terms of changing things? It’s like taking a walking stick, and someone examines it and says, “There’s a top and a bottom.” And someone else says, “No, no. There’s a handle, and there’s a metal tip at one end, and there’s a middle thing.” And yet another person says, “No, no. You’ve got the handle, and you’ve got the middle of it, and you’ve got the bottom, and then there are the two linking things.” So you can just go on forever describing things as you like, and it doesn’t actually help.

But when you say, “If that is so, let me design something – a process that will improve that thing I’m describing or will employ it in a different way.” Now, if that thing turns out to be effective, two things can happen: the effective practice may justify the theoretical basis, or it might turn out that the basis was erroneous. But either way, if the practice you designed is useful, it doesn’t matter whether or not your theoretical basis was accurate. You’ve got something useful, and your erroneous basis has served as the launching point, and that’s what matters.

Victoria Carver: What values drive you in your work?

Edward de Bono: Teaching the world to think. It has to be done! You see the same aspect of thinking being used and overused for over 2,000 years, and you wonder why. It limits so many people who could greatly enrich their own lives and society if they had the tools to think creatively and constructively. And in so many cases, as with the shower attendant at Heathrow, they recognize right away that it all makes sense.