Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Serious Creativity" for Business

One of the benefits of cleaning out my office is coming across business books that I've not looked at in a while, and reconsidering ones I've not read or fully used. I first purchased Serious Creativity by Edward De Bono around the time it came out in 1993. I gave it a perusal, but soon put it on the shelf. Interesting, but deep, and not easily applied. No quick solutions there.

Seventeen years later, I picked it up again and decided to read it through. Initial impression confirmed: This is not a book you can get a few ideas from and apply them in your business life.

The ideas are compelling though. They to amount to a comprehensive strategy for finding and applying creative solutions to business problems.

Lateral Thinking

De Bono is obviously a brilliant man, an international leader in applying creative thinking to business. In the U.S, he is perhaps best known the Six Thinking Hats concept, but this is just one of the techniques he explains in Serious Creativity.

His premise is that creativity is a form of thinking—he calls it "lateral thinking"—and is a definite skill that can be learned. Using insights from computer science and neural science, he explains lateral thinking as a simple biological process.

In normal thinking, the brain literally follows established pathways, the neural connections that it has made in a lifetime of learning to deal with its environment. Normal thinking is perfect for solving problems in an established way.

But if we need creative solutions, we need a different kind of thinking, a departure from the conventional patterns. Lateral thinking jumps off the main track, to the end-point of some side-track. From this point we see our way back to the starting place. This results in a new path for thinking, a creative solution.

Adapted from Edward De Bono, Serious Creativity, ©1992 by The McQuaig Group, Inc.

This is also why inventions and other creative ideas often seem obvious in retrospect. Once the new track is established, it's plain to see how it's connected to the original problem or state.


De Bono cites humor as one familiar example of lateral thinking. In a typical joke, the narrative leads the mind along a linear track. Then the punchline makes the leap to the alternate end-point. The joke only makes sense because we immediately grasp the logical connection of this end-point to the starting place.

"I'm not saying that the customer service in my bank is bad, but when I went in the other day and asked the teller to check my balance, she leaned over and pushed me."

Working the techniques

After explaining the concepts of lateral thinking, De Bono provides a whole collection of techniques to encourage creative jumps and then to evaluate the ideas that result, all from a business perspective.

To benefit from these techniques, you have to learn and practice them. Since reading the book, I've worked intermittently on just a few of the techniques and have only scratched the surface of getting results. As I said: No quick fixes here.


One of the most powerful and interesting techniques is the one De Bono calls provocation. Using the code word "po" as a neural trigger, you state something completely contrary to the current state of affairs or the usual way of doing things. This causes the lateral jump, and you then examine the possible ramifications.

Po, cars have square wheels.

This example led to a moment-to-moment visualizing of the effect of a car with square wheels, which in turn led to the concept of a new kind of suspension system to handle rough terrain.

Po, restaurants do not have menus

Imagine a restaurant where the customers select from a list of fresh ingredients and are then surprised by what the chef prepares. Might be a winning concept.

What's in it for you?

Most of us are looking for creative solutions these days, as the world unmakes and remakes itself. I recommend you look up De Bono's work and see if you find it helpful in generating new ideas for your job or business.

If you are in the workplace learning field, for example, here are a couple of pos that you might be faced with any day now:

Po, your next training class will last only 10 minutes

Po, people can view your e-learning courses only on their smart phones

Friday, April 23, 2010

How I Know What They Know and Don't Know

On the value of a Liberal Arts Education in Business

A recent NY Times article describes what might be the "Next Big Thing" in literary studies. Basically, it is the intersection of literature and cognitive science: how our brains work when reading complex texts and what we gain from the process.

To illustrate this approach, one professor quotes a story line from an episode of the TV comedy Friends.

Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them. As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

The article goes on to describe this "layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking" as one topic of study in this new conjunction between brain science and the Humanities.

All of this reminded me of something I've often thought about my own academic background (a BA in Humanities and a Masters in English/Creative Writing). While it might not seem obvious, I've come to believe these studies prepared me brilliantly for a career in business.

Whether I am writing user instructions, designing a web site, or creating an e-learning course, I constantly need to be aware of my audience's level of knowledge and point of view:
  • How much does a reader know before they start reading?

  • What do they understand at any given point in a process?

  • What percent of the audience already knows some piece of information and what percent needs to be told?

If you are a marketer, a technical writer, an information architect, or a learning designer, understanding your audience is critical. This critical understanding is gained through various techniques: background reading, interviews, focus groups, observations in the workplace, group discussion of observed data. At a university, students are drilled in these techniques in Humanities and Social Science classes. In other words, in Liberal Arts studies.

In my case, I have no doubt that all the hours I spent in seminars discussing 20th Century novels gave me rigorous training in adopting, understanding and appreciating multiple points of view.

In business, whether you are a marketer, an analyst, a writer, or designer, you serve as a communicator between one set of minds and another. To be effective, you have to grasp what those multiple minds understand, think, and believe.

In other words, you have to know what others know and don't know.