by Piers Dudgeon:
Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono was born the second of four brothers on 19 May, 1933, in Valletta on the Mediterranean island of Malta. His father, a studious, thoughtful man, was Professor of Medicine at the University of Malta and had a large general practice; his mother, a forceful political campaigner, was credited with two other pioneers in securing votes for women on the island.
Edward found the ability to be provocative and thoughtful at the same time a useful genetic inheritance, but early on his parents were distant. When they didn’t want the boys to hear what they said, they would speak in Latin; meals were taken in the nursery. There were lessons in self-discipline from Nanny, and boarding school at seven. He learned self-reliance and detachment from an early age.
He was a quiet sort of boy, but had a vigorously curious frame of mind. Between 1940 and 1943 there were more than 8,000 German air raids on this strategically important island. Edward remembers a surprise benefit. As there were no new toys (because nothing could be imported), he began looking at his old toys and eventually at everything – on the dinner table, in the street, wherever he found himself – with an eye to alternative ideas for delivering better value. At school his design-thinking led him to map a route through the cellars of what is now the Cathedral Museum in Mdina, under the girls’ convent school and into the town, making keys to open the big iron gates. When the older boys wanted to go for a beer they had to come to him for map and keys.
Edward mastered the intellectual ethos with ease, but recognised the downside of this, namely that the quickest reward or gratification for a bright boy is to use his intelligence to prove someone else wrong. This so disturbed his equilibrium as a teenager that when the family came together around the dinner table and the intellectual arguments inevitably became polarised, he would tilt his chair perilously back on its hind legs and maintain absolute silence.
Edward was a prodigy. He went to University at 15 and qualified as a doctor at 21. A year later he went as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford and by the time his first book, The Use of Lateral Thinking, was published in 1967, he was Assistant Director of Research in the Department of Investigative Medicine at the University of Cambridge.
His book was in tune with the liberating ethos of the late 1960s. While a generation was demonstrating against apartheid and censorship, Edward was bent on liberating the world from the judgmental and prejudicial thinking which lay at the heart of these, believing that the sort of thinking we employ will determine how we stand in relation to the world, and the kind of world we can bring into being.
Working in Medicine gave him an insight into how self-organising biological systems work. Approaching thinking from the same perspective made it clear to him what provocations to the self-organising system of the brain would make a difference to our thinking. It was this that enabled him to design ‘lateral thinking’. He first used the phrase in an interview with London Life in 1966. Soon afterwards, The Oxford English Dictionary included a definition for the first time, citing the magazine.
By 1972 he had published five more books, among them The Mechanism of Mind (1969), in which he developed the model of the brain on which all his thinking-skills programmes are based, a model further clarified in I Am Right; You Are Wrong (1990) and in Water Logic (1993).
Forty years before psychiatric clinical work on the structure of the brain reached the same conclusion, Edward, using his metaphorical model, characterised the two fundamentally different kinds of thinking our brains can do
He gives us, on the one hand, creative thinking, and on the other, linear processing – analytical-thinking, category-thinking and judgemental-thinking. The latter may be logical, but self-referring, biased at least to the point of being selective of the possibilities it relies on its creative partner to supply, and typically resistant to any input that undermines the status quo, a situation that leads irresistibly to polarised argument and conflict. It was clear to Edward that the creative end of things needed addressing, and how unnatural it had become for most people actually to think ‘outside the box’.
In 1969 Edward founded the Cognitive Research Trust (CoRT), an educational enterprise offering a practical training in creative thinking skills – new software for the brain, useable by anyone, irrespective of IQ or knowledge base. By the time his BBC TV series – de Bono’s Thinking Course – was transmitted in 1981, it was being used in more than 5,000 schools in England, Scotland, Wales, Eire, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, Malta and Nigeria. Through the 1980s it spread to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Bulgaria, the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, USA, Venezuela, South Africa, Botswana, India, China, Russia, Japan and the Philippines.
In 1982, he finally left his job at Cambridge University and succumbed to the call from big business, launching the first International Conference on Thinking. In 1987 he formed the International Creative Forum, which, with such giants as IBM, Prudential, DuPont, Merck, Nestlé, British Airways and BAA, marshalled his work worldwide.
Meanwhile, Conflicts: A Better Way to Resolve Them developed his concept of parallel thinking, which took him into the political arena. ‘We have to stop bothering about who is right and who is wrong, and ask instead, what will make a difference.’ In 1985, as the Soviet Union took its first step away from conflict politics in Perestroika, his book attracted the Kremlin’s attention (he was called for an audience shortly after publication). In Israel, he met with Menachem Begin, and the Ministers of Science and Education, and travelled to Jordan to meet with the Palestinian education authorities. In 1989, he led the Seoul Symposium of eleven Nobel Laureates in Korea, discussing Third World debt, AIDS, world trade and economic development, education, unemployment, ecology and pollution, human values, world peace and arms spending. In 1998, leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, he met with David Trimble, Mary McAleese, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland and trained a number of people in parallel thinking with funding from the EU.
Education and business picked up this methodology through Six Thinking Hats (also 1985), now his most popular book worldwide. Today, a global network going by the name of ‘de Bono’ links over 300 certified trainers in 72 countries through 22 affiliate authorised distributors on six continents.
Lateral thinkers are more than a bit like Edward. They have the ability to be thoughtful and provocative at the same time, in the sense that they understand how to provoke the brain into creativity. They might be detached and self-possessed and like making things happen. They are always curious and inventive. They never accept that there is only one way a thing can be. They enjoy especially the punch line in humour and above all the ‘Eureka!’ moment of insight.
But unlike Edward, they are not all born to it.
Nor, thanks to his thinking tools, is there any need to be.
Piers Dudgeon, June 2019
author of Breaking Out of the Box
1994 Dr. Edward de Bono was awarded the Pioneer Prize at the International Conference on Thinking at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston).
1995 the ‘Order of Merit’ was conferred by the President of Malta.
2002 he was named by the Institute for Strategic Change among the top 50 living business gurus.
2003 Business People magazine named him as one of 20 visionaries who have the strongest influence on managers’ thinking.
2005 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics.
2009 he was appointed an ambassador for the European Year of Creativity and Innovation.
"Love Laterally" a soon to be published biography of Edward de Bono, by Sarah Tucker.
The Brain is Wider Than the Sky
The Brain-is wider than the Sky-
For-put them side by side-
The one the other will contain
With ease-and You-beside-
The Brain is deeper than the sea-
For-hold them-Blue to Blue-
The one the other will absorb-
The Brain is just the weight of God-
For-Heft them-Pound for Pound-
And they will differ-if they do-
As Syllable from Sound-
Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono, was a Maltese physician, psychologist, visionary, author, inventor, philosopher and consultant, Nobel Prize nominee, although when I asked him last year how he would like to be remembered, he simply replied 'author', and, as his name dictates; ‘remembered for doing good’.
He is possibly, probably, most celebrated for introducing the world to the concept of 'lateral thinking' which in his book 'The Use of Lateral Thinking' (1967) he defined as a means of escaping established ideas and perceptions in order to find new ones. The publication of this best selling book and his subsequent work (over seventy books translated into 36 languages), including the invention of the words such as PO (anything is possible, anything is probable); parallel thinking; ‘Six Thinking Hats’ methods with schools, corporations, governments and world leaders, established him as the ‘father’ of lateral thinking. There have been many subsequent books, podcasts, courses, on thinking and re thinking and thinking differently - especially in recent years, where global pandemics has acted as catalyst to finding solutions where linear thinking has failed. Edward de Bono didn’t need such stimuli. The authors of ‘how to think books’ follow on from much of what he established in his books of the 60s, 70s and 80s. They are the pathfinders. De Bono was the path.
The ultimate polymath, with an unrelenting probing intelligence, unquenchable curiosity, and boundless inventive imagination, his carpe diem attitude to life, meant when compiling his bibliography for his biography, Love Laterally, to be published later this year, there was ample sufficiency to give his prolific list of achievements a chapter of its own.
His books varied from Mechanism of Mind (1969), which reads like a sassy doctoral thesis on why the brain likes to think in patterns, why it needs to be continually nudged into breaking out of binary, linear thinking, to the increasingly psychological (Serious Creativity 1992), business centric (Simplicity, 1998 Sur/petition 1996) identifying the limitation of critical thinking, egocentric thinking of politicians, and short-ism of the financial sector (I Am Right, You are Wrong 1990), and introducing specific tools and methods to enable individuals and groups to think with more creativity, especially when they appeared ‘stuck’ (The Six Thinking Hats 1985; Six Value Medals 2005; Six Action Shoes). I once asked Edward why he chose the number ‘six’ and he replied ‘it is a good number to remember.’
Before it became on trend, he was well aware of the connection between mental well being and the value of learning how to think, illustrated in his more philosophical works; The Happiness Purpose (1977) where he suggests a religion based on respect and positivity rather than love would cause less global conflict, and became more playful in his work in Why I Want to Be King of Australia (1999), which he wrote on the plane from London to Auckland, giving reasons as to how a leader should be chosen; the qualities they needed to possess; and why he would make an excellent monarch to a country which he openly admitted he felt most at home. He even noted throughout the book where he was flying at the time of writing. He told me he was immensely proud of being able to sing in the Sydney Opera House, when he headlined talks on creativity there in 2008, although he admitted, ‘I wasn’t particularly good.’
De Bono was a genius (his nickname at school in Malta and at university was 'genius'), born to a country where necessity was the mother of invention, and to a family where the importance of education, fulfilling potential and serving others before yourself was instilled from an early age. His mother, Josephine Burns de Bono, was a journalist, Irish born, a suffragette who was instrumental in getting Agatha Barbara the first female minister and President of Malta elected in 1947, but never entered politics herself. She married Joseph de Bono, a Maltese doctor, who was highly revered on the island through his commitment to the Maltese people, even during times when there were strikes and war, he continued to serve the community.
Edward started as an undergraduate at Malta University at the age of fifteen, having been offered the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford at the age of nineteen, but was only able to accept it two years later in 1955. He completed his BA in two years, although not achieving a first, a professor there said 'great men don't always get a first'. He then took up a role as a research assistant in the Department of the Regius Professor of Medicine while studying for a DPhil in Medicine, as well as working as a junior lectures in medicine at Oxford.
It took Edward only five years to qualify as a doctor. Although his academic achievements were considerable, it is evident from reading his books and listening to his presentations, he was frustrated with the way children and graduates were taught what to think rather than how to think. (Lateral thinker in despair at the wasted state of British schools The Independent 2002) ‘Universities should be a portal through which students emerge with transcendent and transcended thinking rather than an archway through which they are funnelled in order to perpetuate narrow minded perspective.’ He told me once. It is also claimed he said ‘universities are irrelevant establishments of mental masturbation’ but he never said that to me. (!)
Despite his frustration with the way in which students were taught (not) to think at university, he appeared to have enjoyed his university years immensely, actively taking part in the sports, and mixing in the highest of circles, playing polo with the late Lord Mountbatten, who later asked him to give a seminar to his admirals in Portsmouth and lecture to the Atlantic colleges in Wales and Singapore on lateral and parallel thinking.
He excelled in sport, being excellent at cricket, rowing and polo where he met HRH Prince Phillip at the Sandringham Polo Club. It was a friendship that he maintained till the death of HRH. "Sport challenged him, and when it no longer challenged him, he challenged himself," Josephine, his ex wife told me when I met her. "The Oxford to London canoe trip he led while there, was a dare, but he accepted it, navigating thirty-three locks and beating the previous record by four hours. A challenge which later cost the lives of two men, who tried to better Edward's feat."
During his lifetime, Edward lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, and as a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School, and as honorary registrar at the St Thomas Hospital Medical School within the University of London, and spoke to business conferences of thousands to multinationals, but it was the informal discussions around his table at his London home in Albany in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, where he felt most at ease and appeared to enjoy the most. He organised weekly suppers known as ‘Albany Suppers’, at his London home opposite Fortnum and Masons, during the 80s, where he always invited an eclectic selection of people (Princes and politicians, academics, musicians and actors) to discuss issues - usually six - a number that would comfortably sit around his table and mass of books piled high reminiscent of something out of Dumbledore's Harry Potter days. He would ask questions and then listen to their differing perspectives, as interested to learn how they thought as to what they thought.
A perceptive, gentle, punctilious, generous and rather mischievous man, I had the privilege of meeting him many times over the past ten years, and yet it is from his books, and the reaction and comments of his friends, his family, and his colleagues, who were and are fiercely loyal to him, one gets the sense of a man who wanted throughout his life, to draw attention to his ideas rather than to himself. He was able to walk that line, treating the adulation and criticism just the same, as an opportunity to stimulate his ever-active mind.
He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work to business and commerce in 2005, but never received formal recognition from the UK government despite being asked for advice on many occasions about educational and peace keeping initiatives including the Irish and Arab-Israeli conflict, the latter of which he famously recommended Marmite being added to the diet as zinc constituted a large part of spread; a mineral which strengthens the immune system, and helps with anger management. (De Bono’s Marmite plan for peace in the Middle Yeast (2011 The Independent)). Although the media at the time rather mocked his suggestion, it was typical of his non linear thinking, but which in later years proved to be prophetic in his understanding of the importance of nutrition in maintaining good mental as well as physical health. ‘If the GP of today does not become the nutritionist of tomorrow, the nutritionist of today will become the GPs of tomorrow,’ he told me.
His thirst for knowledge was matched by his thirst for finding ways to apply and share and make that knowledge more accessible to the masses. From his extensive travels around the world – he claimed he was in the air more than he was on the ground during the height of his global conference circuit, to his inventions of CoRT a system introducing thinking tools and classes into schools, he always maximised his time, writing scripts, reading magazines – circling ideas which would give him an idea which he would apply somewhere else, and even writing entire books. His son, Charlie, told me he would create thinking games and test them out on the boys, enjoying playing with them as their equal. The L Game was an example of one such game, which formed part of his Five day course in thinking (1967).
It is a testament to his kindness and generosity of spirit that those I interviewed spoke of him with genuine affection as well as palpable respect. From the late HRH Prince Phillip, to family friend musician Peter Gabriel, to Baroness Helena Kennedy, who wrote the introduction to his biography, Edward’s influence structured their thinking and attitude towards thinking. His magnetic and creative communication skills enabled him to reach and enthuse the five year old school child with thinking ideas, as the hard bitten CEO who had heard and seen it all, and completely changed their mind set when they listened to him speak. Advertising gurus Dave Trott and Rory Sutherland, spoke of his magnetism and how instead of organising a client jolly one year, Trott asked De Bono to speak to his employees, leading to the advertising agency, according to Trott, ‘ winning every advertising award going’.
He was invited to speak and/or represent his country at many events around the world, even sometimes being invited twice by accident. On one such occasion, he attended the Royal summer garden party twice (although you are only supposed to attend it once). Josephine, his ex wife, who was with him at the time, commented 'the Queen noticed we were there and said 'what are you doing here again? You are only supposed to be here once.’ Edward explained what had happened - (the Maltese government had extended the invitation) and the late HRH Prince Phillip asked Edward how he was getting on with his work on lateral thinking. When the Queen asked what it was about, Phillip replied, 'its something you do lying down.'
The use of humour was an intrinsic part of Edward’s presentations, of which he held thousands during his life, introducing jokes to explain how lateral thinking works and why it is relevant to the everyday rather than as an add-on to keep the audience amused. He was able to hold an audience’s attention with ease, without fuss, just him on the stage, like an Ed Sheeran who needed nothing more than his roller board and laminated paper on which he would write. ‘Regardless of where he was in the world, and to whom he was speaking,’ his assistant Justine Gaspar told me ‘the audience would want him to like them.’
Those who worked with him describe him as incredibly punctilious, but he used his time well, writing, inventing, planning on planes, en route to conferences. Josephine his ex wife told me ‘Edward would sometimes be at a dinner party and people would think he was thinking about some great plan and not listening to their small talk, but he would often speak up suggesting he had heard every word being said. I think he rather enjoyed that.’
Baroness Kennedy, who was a fan of his work, claimed ‘Edward De Bono had his detractors because people felt he was stating something that has always been at the heart of human invention. However, sometimes just naming something demystifies it and encourages people to think differently. Many great scientists and academics are not great at explaining their work. De Bono's skill was as a communicator and storyteller.’
"He is nothing if not provocative," advertising guru Dave Trott told me, who is a huge fan and follower of Edward's work. "But provocative is good. Provocation is what the world needs. Indeed, he frequently challenges the way politicians think, believing those who have risen to positions of power have risen through their fluency of style being misinterpreted for the integrity of thinking. The two are very different. He is never partisan nor political. This would limit his thinking. Edward didn't just stamp all over the linear way of thinking we encourage in schools, universities, business schools, commerce, politics; he kicked it into touch. He understood it and realised the limitations, so he didn't need to create chaos as many rebels do, dissatisfied with the status quo. He gave the different way of thinking purpose, structure, relevance, and applicability measurability - and a name—lateral thinking. The global business world recognised his genius. So did some politicians and lawyers. Ironically, the education establishment, an establishment borne of learning, have yet to learn.”.
At the height of his influence, those in commerce and business were able to see the commercial potential of De Bono's spur to think laterally. Some politicians realised the impact his thinking could have on economics and even on a peace process - breaking through entrenched ways of thinking which had led to walls, of a literal and metaphorical kind. It was also seized upon by creative teachers as fundamental to a good education. Edward de Bono always used storytelling to gain the attention and understanding of children and CEOs alike. The importance of seeing connection is the skill of really good thinkers and communicators: that was the De Bono message.
Baroness Helena Kennedy, who has the first word in Edward’s biography I will leave with the last,
‘Most of my work has been around terrorism, domestic violence, and sexual violence. The psychiatrists with whom I worked on torture cases were able to read across to identify similar symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in serious domestic violence cases. Again, this sort of read-across saves lives. I was taking something from one place, one area of experience, and seeing if it can apply in another. I think lateral thinking is fundamental to human development, giving expression to creativity. Most breakthroughs in science and medicine and other fields like law happen by doing this. But Edward de Bono is more than that; he teaches people to think for themselves. Perhaps his legacy is yet to be realised.’