'vertical thinking is for using ideas - lateral thinking for changing them'
by Edward de Bono
The Myth of the Monohops
Monohop society was intensely logical. Early in the development of this culture, the sociologists had come to the conclusion that most of society's troubles arose directly from man's ability to attack his fellows and from his ability to run away. The former encouraged agression, the latter crime. It was agreed that if man's mobility could be reduced at an early enough age society would benefit. Therefore soon after birth the left leg was amputated from each monohop child.
With its usual rapid adaptation, society soon organized itself into a monohop world. Bicycles had but one pedal, right shoes were the only shoes ever made, all staircase were abolished and replaced by lifts and escalators. In short so completely did society become monohop that no one noticed any inconvenience.
Whenever someone suggested that a two-legged society might be preferable, he was not met by hostility but by puzzlement. Why, they asked, should we change?
Everything is running smoothly. Wouldn't we have to go to great expense to make and buy left shoes? Wouldn't our bicycles become useless? And what about unemployment among surgeons and lift-makers? What about agression and crime - we know there would be a great increase? Besides, can you prove that change would better, have you collected statistical evidence to show that two-legged monohops would be better than the usual variety?
But, said the revolutionary, is it not obvious that a man with two legs can do all that a man with one leg can do - and more as well? That may well be, they said, but monohops are clearly the best suited to this monohop world. We are concerned only with getting our people to hop as excellently as possible (we have exams, you know), not with how much better life would be if we had two legs instead of one.
It has been suggested that the three greatest intellectual disasters in Western culture were the ancient Greeks, the Crucifixion and the Renaissance. I do see the point of this suggestion, but I would draw a sharp distinction between the extremism, the polarization and the right wrong certainty of the Crucifxion, and Christianity as such which innovated exactly opposing attitudes.
The traditional idiom of thinking, started by the Greek philosophers and nurtured by the Renaissance, suggests that somehow, somewhere, an absolute truth is set high on a mountain and that with sufficient intelligence and education anyone can mount the carefully polished concept steps that lead there. This attitude is nicely illustrated by Bertrand Russell in his Nobel Prize lecture: "..the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence. And this is after all an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education."
Is this so? Nearly all the conflict situations in history have been brought about by the better-educated people on each side. What Bertrand Russell might have meant was that everyone who agreed with the enlightened way he, Bertrand Russell thought was intelligent and well educated. That is the traditional use of the word 'intelligent'. Or he may have meant that there was some high level of intelligence which, once achieved, would result in everyone coming to the same conclusions. If so, then we have no right to assume that known methods of education will enable us ever to reach an intelligence that has been so obviously unattainable in the past.
In practice it seems that people start out with a different way of looking at things and then use their intelligence and education to support that point of view. Since the old idiom of thinking insists that there is an absolutely right way to look at things, then anybody who reaches a way that seems right to her/him necessarily feels that any opposing point of view must be wrong (and hence need altering).
It is certainly not a lack of intelligence or education that allows people to think in different ways - simply the fact that they are living in different worlds furnished by different experience, perceptions and emotions.
The more one looks into thinking the more one comes to realize that:
1 Everyone is always right
2 No one is ever right
In other words, within your own perceptual world you are always right, but this is not everyone else's world and certainly not an absolute one. Once you accept this idea, then the emphasis shifts away from proving the logical wrongness of the other person's point of view on the assumption that you are both looking at the same thing.
There is a story of a man who painted half his car black and the other half white. He said he did this because he loved to hear the witnesses dogmatically contradict each other whenever he was involved in an accident. A wife tries on a new dress and loves it. Her husband who is with her dislikes it. She is looking at the colour and shape - he is looking at the price.
(Once you accept this idea,....) The emphasis shifts from proving the other person wrong to exploring what he is really looking at. And if he does seem to have an inadequate point of view then one tries to bring about a change in this, not by forceful dogmatism but by developing the type of thinking which will allow him to switch over and look at things in a different way. Unfortunately the traditional idiom of thinking is not good at doing this because it insists that logical rightness is absolute. One needs a new idiom of thinking that is based not on dogmatic proof but on the creative ability to change ideas. It is this sort of change that leads to a different way of looking at things, and the switch-over to that new way is insight.
An Englishman may learn to speak German very fluently. He may get more and more skilled all the time. But he will never reach a point at which his excellence in German is such that he suddenly finds himself speaking Italian. No amount of excellence in the old idiom of thinking will enable you to suddenly switch over to a new idiom. If you happen to be in Italy, then a few words mumbled in Italian are worth more than any degree of excellence in German.
To criticize the old idiom of thinking does not mean that it is wrong, but just sometimes inappropriate. Furthermore it is not necessary to have developed the new idiom to the same pitch of excellence as the old one before it can be useful. Someone using the new idiom is not necessarily more skilled in thinking than someone using the old idiom - a person mumbling a few words in Italian could not claim to be a better linguist than the person who is fluent in German, but the person who is fluent in both could make this claim.
Computers and thinking
Some years ago I was using computers to work out some complicated mathematics in the course of my medical research. Like everyone else, I was much impressed by the superb efficiency of the machines which seeemed on the point of making human thinking superfluous. Reacting against this, I became interested in that type of thinking in which the human mind still surpassed computers. This was the type of thinking required for creativity and invention: the generation of new ideas and the escape from the old ones.
It seemed likely that in the future, as computers took over the 'processing' part of the thinking the 'idea' part would become more and more important. On the whole, computers are so uncreative that in order for them to work at all you have to give them the starting 'ideas' and the instructions for dealing with them. The computer then processes the ideas according to the instructions and gives you the result that arises from the combination of those ideas and those instructions. The computer is instructed to use a mathematical technique to work out the best course of action. However, the outcome is determined by how the situation is looked at in the first place: whether it is seen as a conflict situation; what factors are taken into consideration; the importance or values that are given to the chosen factors, and so on. It is this initial 'idea' stage ( or perceptual stage) that really determines the answer. The 'processing' stage, however excellent, can do no more than tell you what is implicit in the idea stage. Thus the two stages of thinking are :
1 the idea stage
2 the processing stage.
In fact the very excellence of the computer in the procesing stages places a growing burden on the human mind, which has to set up the starting ideas. Not only does the human mind have to set up questions for the computer to answer but it also has to make sense of the answers.
We are told we live in a world of exploding information; every day there is more and more to learn. But actually we live in a world of exploding data - not information. Ideas are the spectacles through which we have to look at data in order to see information. We act on information, not on data. And, contrary to what most scientists are taught, data cannot turn into information without ideas. It is as necessary to learn how to generate ideas as it is to learn how to generate and process data.
It is in this first stage of thinking (the pre-logical idea stage) That the creativity of the human mind cannot yet be replaced by computers. When it is replaced, then the computers will decide on the world that is best for computers to live in - with humans as their mates.
First-stage thinking and second stage thinking
At the end of the first stage of thinking we have a way of looking at things. We have parcelled up the situation into concepts, factors, aspects, and so on. Most people only think of the first one and suppose that they can do without creativity, since they are not designers, inventors or artists.
This is an obvious use of creativity. It is a matter of new inventions, new designs, new styles, new theories; in fact, new ideas of any sort, which leap forward from the present state of knowledge.
Few people set out ot be inventors but everyone has problems. Often problems are created only by the particular way one looks at a situation. This is the way that has been determined by the sequence of experience. As soon as one can break out of this way of looking at things the problem disappears. At other times a particular approach makes a problem very difficult or even impossible to solve. Yet a change of approach makes a solution very easy. Even if one is using mathematical problem-solving techniques, creativity plays an important part in the way the problem is looked at before the techniques are chosen or applied.
Ideas, like organizations, grow more complex and more cumbersome. This is because changes are simply added on. It is easy to add, difficult to subtract and almost impossible to restructure. There comes a time when creative restructuring can simplify things enormously. This cycle of complication followed by simplification is very evident in the world of design and also in science. A good example is insulin, which was at first supposed to have all sorts of complicated actions; these were then reduced to the single action of facilitating the entry of glucose into cells. The moment of simplification usually involves a new idea which breaks away from the old way of looking at things to provide a new, simpler way that may have been available for a long time.
One can make decisions about the past by examining all the available data - one would not want to make decisions on incomplete data. But in planning and making decisions about the future one has no data except what can be obtained by extrapolating past data. When the rate of change is as high as it is today, this extrapolation can be very dangerous. In order to create an adequate framework for future decisions one has to generate as many alternatives as possible. This is a matter of creativity. Creativity is also involved in generating the alternative explanations offered for some event. Such alternatives are the basis of progress in science and without them one is dangerously trapped in the certainty of ignorance.
Mania for change
It is often said that there is too much mania for change and that change creates more problems than it solves. It is certainly easy to point to technological changes and the problems created by atomic energy, pollution and supersonic airliners, for example.
But it is not the technological change itself that causes the trouble, but the unchanged ideas that direct, control and use the new technology. The atomic bomb is the result of a very very old idea: make your weapon as powerful as you can. Pollution is the result of a very very old idea: throw things away and forget about them. Supersonic airliners are the result of a very very old idea: travel as fast as you possibly can. It is not a matter of stopping change but learning to change the ideas that control technology.
The danger is not that we have too much change: it is that we have mechanisms of change in the technological world, but none in the world of thinking, because our old idiom of thinking has never developed methods for changing ideas.
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