By Robert Rawlinson, CEO, The Edward de Bono Foundation (UK)

“You have to dye your hair and wear wacky clothes to be creative.”
“Creative people just sit around playing on their ipods all day.”
“You are creative if you work in the creative industry.”
“Creative people are difficult to control.”

Firstly, before you can think about ‘getting staff to be creative’, it is important to understand what true creativity is. The above statements are, of course, complete fabrications. Naturally, perceptions and stereotypes exist because it is a human trait to pigeon-hole people, but creativity comes in many forms and should not be thought of as a mysterious art.

Creativity means designing the way forward. Creativity is needed for change, improvement and ideas. Without creativity there is only repetition and routine.

All businesses are under pressure to find new and better ways to increase overall performance. Whether it’s cutting costs, meeting targets or developing a new product or service, fresh ideas are in constant demand to remedy a problem or simplify a process.

Let’s be honest, it’s tough being a businessman or woman today. In the first three years of business, DTI statistics show that 28.7 per cent of start-ups are likely to fail. There are, of course, many reasons for failure, However, creative thinking will play a huge role in helping businesses to grow and be more profitable.

As we enter the next phase of the information age, knowledge and its creative application will provide the key differentiator in business — from the way we educate our children to how we equip our staff with the skills to power the economy. According to statistics from the DTI, more than half (58.7%) of employment in the UK is through small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), so clearly it’s an important industry sector. These businesses are more likely to thrive if they are unified, skilled and creative.

Dr Edward de Bono, the world’s authority on creative thinking, states “The quality of your thinking will determine the quality of your future.” So, how do you get staff to embrace creativity in their everyday lives and will it help?

Creativity is not just about being a great artist or being able to play a musical instrument, it’s also about taking an alternative approach to solving a problem. In the 1970s, Dr de Bono changed the world’s approach to creativity when he coined the term ‘Lateral Thinking’.

When looking to get a better understanding of the brain, Dr Edward de Bono’s research led to the discovery that the brain is a self-organising system that routinely interprets inputs into patterns. The brain is not inherently designed to be creative. However, through the adoption of Lateral Thinking tools, it can be trained to move laterally across patterns, opening up new perceptions, concepts and ideas.

Dr Edward de Bono has created formal techniques to break out from previously established thinking patterns to foster Lateral Thinking. He proposes that, “the most effective way of changing ideas is not from outside, by conflict, but from within by the insight rearrangement of available information.”

In business, we can learn a lot about creativity from humour. Comedians make us laugh by surprising us with a switch in perception. A funny joke is usually obvious in hindsight, but we need a bridge to help us get there. With lateral thinking, however, there is no storyteller to make the jump for us. So we have to devise a practical means for cutting across the tracks. We can do this by using a combination of provocation and movement.

De Bono invented the word “PO” which stands for a provocation operation. He says, “It signals that what follows is to be used directly as a provocation (that is to say, used for its movement value). A PO provides the some sort of value that has been provided historically by accident, mistake, eccentricity, or individual bold-mindedness. The PO (provocation) serves to take us out of the comfort of an existing pattern.”

An excellent example of PO in action was famously with 3M’s sticky post-it notes. A company world-renown for adhesives embarked on some lateral thinking and thought, “we’re a company known for sticking things, why don’t why challenge that idea and make something that doesn’t stick?” And the idea behind the post-it note was born.

There are a number of approaches to PO, which are part of de Bono’s Thinking Systems that help to encourage lateral thinking – for example, escape, reversal, exaggeration, distortion, and wishful thinking. Using these methods, the Lateral Thinker is able to provoke their own thinking.

Whatever business you are in, Lateral Thinking is an essential means of fostering creativity. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen overnight: like any skill it needs teaching and practising. At the Edward de Bono Foundation, we teach Lateral Thinking tools such as Alternative or Concept Triangles, Focus, Challenge and Random Word Entry to give business people the tools to break out from their regular — vertical — thinking methods.

As small and medium-sized businesses are faced with the many challenges ahead, from home and abroad, this alternative approach will just make the difference.

Ideas are the currency of success. They separate you from your competition’
Dr Edward de Bono

Robert Rawlinson is CEO of the Edward de Bono Foundation (UK), which helps organisations increase constructive and creative thinking to improve performance and productivity. For more information,visit

June 2007

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