The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

Saying goodbye to the great innovator

Owen Bonnici Friday, 18 June 2021, 07:44 Last update: about 3 months ago

Edward de Bono was one of a kind.

His name, widely respected and appreciated, evolved, over the years, into a synonym of two of his creations: the term lateral thinking and the famous six thinking hats.  The two extraordinary innovations are known world-wide and are considered in high regard throughout academia and outside of it.


Edward de Bono was born before the war in Malta and obtained his medical degree from our University.  After that, he starts an exciting period in his life wherein he studied psychology and physiology as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and gained a PhD in medicine from Cambridge.   He subsequently held positions in four of the most prestigious Universities – Oxford, Cambridge, London and Harvard.

De Bono made a name for himself, and a fortune, through his books (he wrote more than 50).  Everything started in 1967 a few years after Malta obtained its Independence from the UK with the book The Use of Lateral Thinking.  Through this book, he seemed to be making it his personal quest to free us common mortals from the tyranny of logic through creative thinking. 

The Guardian quoted him saying as follows:

“What happened was, 2,400 years ago, the Greek Gang of Three, by whom I mean Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, started to think based on analysis, judgment and knowledge. At the same time, church people, who ran the schools and universities, wanted logic to prove the heretics wrong. As a result, design and perceptual thinking was never developed.”

Prof de Bono draws a distinction between vertical thinking and lateral thinking.  Vertifical thinking has logic at its base.  Later thinking has the creation of new ideas at its base. 

Another quotation by the Guardian of Prof de Bono explains this concept:

“Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas. Logic will never change emotion or perception.”

And at this point, in order to explain better the concept, Prof de Bono tells a joke.  Incidentally according to de Bono, humour is one of the most important aspects of the human mind since it has at its basis the ability to shift perceptions.

“An old man dies and goes to hell. When he gets there, he sees his friend, a 90-year-old man, with a beautiful woman sitting on his knee. He says to his friend, ‘This can’t be hell, you’re not being punished, you’re having fun!’, to which his friend replies, ‘This is punishment – for her!’”

Edward de Bono and the Lateral Thinking concept has had his critics.  However, Forbes Magazine sums it perfectly when it said: “If you haven’t heard of Edward de Bono or of Lateral Thinking, perhaps you have been too busy thinking in conventional ways.” 

Ron D. Barbaro, President of the Prudential Insurance Company of America had this to say about ‘Lateral Thinking’:

“By using Edward de Bono’s brilliant concept of ‘Lateral Thinking’ we were able to revolutionize the insurance industry through ‘living needs’ policies that allow people to benefit from their life insurance while they are alive.”

His second great contribution to humankind is the Thinking Hats concept.  This concept has been used by a wide array of leading international clients hailing from industries ranging from ICT to aeronautics.  Of course, his proposition is to invite people who attend business meetings to wear imaginary colour-coded hats.  That way, he professed, those meetings would be much more efficient.

Each colour signified thoughts: for instance blue stands for management, red represents emotion and so on. Suzanne Wolfe, from MDS Sciex lauded the application of the Thinking Hats concept with regards to the way the company looked at problem solving and creating solutions.

“Six Hats,” she said, “systematically provides an opportunity for creativity in an environment that’s free of the criticism and confrontation we used to see. This means that everyone can collaborate and build on even the craziest of ideas to come up with creative solutions.”

“It’s true,” she explains, “we had great results using Six Hats with qstar (an increase in the efficiency of the development process by 40%), but the long-term impact is even greater. we can repeat our success over and over because of these changed behaviors.”

He was very critical of education systems and the reasons which led him to be that critical merit profound reflection.

As we come to the end of this century and this millennium, I find it amazing that we are complacent about an education system that is so very out of date,” he wrote back in 1999.

He explains that although much has changed in the last century, the one thing that has changed hardly at all is education. Education systems have reached a stable equilibrium state from which they cannot be budged, he said.

His main point of criticism is that while thinking is, according to Prof de Bono, the most fundamental of human skills since it is the mechanism by which we deliver and enjoy values, this important skill is not at the centre of our education efforts.

He says that the only thinking which is on the curriculum at schools is the judgment thinking which lacks the energy of design, creative and constructive thinking.

Allow me to quote Prof de Bono directly:

The idea that many people have that thinking is already being taught is like a person who knows how to boil an egg claiming to be a super-chef. Of course that person is ‘cooking’. We believe that teaching information sorting and argument is teaching thinking. It is certainly not teaching ‘unthinking’ – but it is a very limited and totally inadequate approach to thinking.

In my time as Culture Minister I had the pleasure of inviting Prof de Bono to a special Parliamentary session made up of artists and culture practitioners.  He came and delivered a number of important tips which found themselves at the heart of the cultural strategy which my friends Albert Marshall and Toni Attard had so ably “sown” (as Albert would say) together after that event.

In my very brief time as Education Minister, after the excellent experience we had in the “cultural parliament” I had also sought again Prof de Bono’s views, this time along with others, as a think tank on the future of our education system.  I thought that this was a good idea, but a huge majority within the education system disagreed with it and criticized it with all their might, going as far as labelling it as a fruitless exercise.  Pity. 

Malta has lost its great innovator.  My most sincere condolences to his family.






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