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Being uninhibited is not enough
(The teaching of creative thinking. Page 4)

A prisoner is thrown, bound hand and foot, into a deep pit. After an energetic struggle, the prisoner wriggles out of his bonds and shouts, "I am free! I am free!"

The traditional approach to creativity is along the same lines. We know that people are inhibited by the fear of making mistakes and the fear of looking ridiculous. We know that an education system which demands the "one right answer" makes people search for the standard way of doing things. This heavy load on inhibitions presses down and prevents people from being spontaneous and even creative.

It must follow that if we remove the inhibitions, then people will be "creative." This is the basis of so much of traditional creative training. Set people free. Give them the courage to come up with unorthodox ideas. Remove the fear of seeming ridiculous. Surely the result must be creativity?

The prisoner at the bottom of the pit is certainly freer when he is out of his restricting bonds. But the freedom is relative.  He is still at the bottom of the pit. What he needs to get out of the pit is not just "freedom from bonds" but some climbing skills and techniques which will enable him to climb out of the deep pit with its vertical walls.

It is traditionally assumed that the brain is naturally creative and is only inhibited by education and the fear of being wrong. Remove these inhibitions and you restore the natural creativity of the brain.

But this is a myth. The brain is not designed to be creative. The excellence of the brain arises directly from its ability to make patterns, to use these patterns and to reject deviations from these patterns.

"The brain is not designed to be creative. The excellence of the brain arises from its ability to make patterns, to use these patterns and to reject deviations from these patterns"

That is a marvellous system which allows the brain to make sense of the immensely complicated world around. But it is the opposite of creativity. When this coordinated pattern-making and pattern­ using is disrupted, we get the madness of psychosis. If we can no longer make sense of the world around, we may indeed have some "unusual" ideas, but this is not useful creativity. For example, we need to develop the ability to set up and use provocations.


Figure 4 illustrates how inhibitions may indeed suppress our creativity below the "normal" level. So, removing the inhibitions does make us mildly more creative as we return to the normal level of curiosity and exploration and playing around. In order to go beyond this base level we have to learn some deliberate and formal techniques that are not "natural" at all.

Figure 4

The cause of serious creativity has been badly damaged by those who advocate that it is all a matter of "craziness" and that being "off the wall" is the same as being creative. This is a total misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of provocation.


Creativity is a logical process -but it is not the logic of passive information systems. It is the logic of self-organizing patterning systems with their asymmetric patterns. In such systems there is a logical need for provocation.


The definition of a provocation is simple: "There may not be a need for saying something until after it has been said." This is totally contrary to normal logic in which the reason for saying something must precede the statement.


The logical purpose of a provocation is to help us to move from the main track pattern across to the side track.


I also invented the new word po, which signals very clearly that the statement is being used deliberately as a provocation. So, if I say, "Po, cars should have square wheels," I am not seriously advocating the use of square wheels. The purpose of the provocation is to force our minds out of the usual groove and to increase the chance of getting across to a new idea, as illustrated in Figure 5.

Tracks PO_edited.png
Figure 5

Traditional brainstorming often gave the impression that it was enough to be "crazy" and maybe a useful idea would turn up. This sort of scatter-gun approach might have had some validity in the advertising world where novelty can be a sufficient value, but in every other field there is a need for an idea which is not just novel but also effective. So many people have been turned off by this weak and seemingly crazy process of brainstorming.

In lateral thinking, there are formalized and systematic techniques for setting up provocations: escape, distortion, exaggeration, etc. These techniques can be learned, practiced and used. These techniques can be taught to others to use.

Forty years of experience in the field have taught me that these sys­tematic techniques work in a powerful manner.


After Montreal had sustained huge debts from its hosting of the 1976 Olympic Games, no city in the world wanted the 1984 Games. Finally, Los Angeles only agreed to host the Games because there was a "guarantee" from the organizing committee that there would be no debts.  In the end, the Los Angeles Games made a surplus of $255 million and were so successful that today cities around the world compete fiercely to get the Games which no one had wanted. When Peter Ueberroth, the outstanding organizer of the Los Angeles Games, was asked in an interview in the Washington Post (September 30, 1984) how he had generated the new concepts needed to make a success of the Games, he replied that he had used lateral thinking and he mentioned the process of provocation. When I asked him about this, he reminded me that he had first learned his lateral thinking from a short talk I had given to a meeting of the Young Presidents' Organization in Boca Raton in 1975. This example illustrates three things:


1. That the techniques can be taught.


2. That the techniques can be used deliberately.


3. That the techniques can have a powerful effect.


Of course, the major factor in the success of the Los Angeles Games was the ability of Mr. Ueberroth as an organizer, leader and motivator of a very capable team. Nevertheless, there is a point when new concepts are needed - and that is where lateral thinking comes in.


It is not just a matter of being "crazy" and hoping that something happens. There is a logical basis to provocation and systematic ways of setting up and using provocations. Quite often teachers of creative thinking who do not understand the logical basis (the behaviour of neural networks) pick up on the provocation and believe that it simply means being "crazy."

Page 4 of 9

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