De Bono: A Modern Day Plato?

Posted by A.C. Ping
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Edward De Bono is widely regarded as one of the leading ‘thinkers’ on the planet. He has published over fifty books, advised leading corporations around the globe and most recently has established his own Institute in Melbourne. A.C. Ping tracked him down in Malta to find out why the Institute has been set up and to get his views on the challenges facing Australian businesses in the new millennium.

A.C.- Edward, throughout history, many well known thinkers have established institutes to teach their particular way of thinking, most notably Plato. In setting up the Centre for New World Thinking, do you see yourself as a modern day Plato ?

Edward - I think Plato is a level of excellence and I think it is difficult to claim levels of excellence but in so much as Plato was interested in teaching thinking, teaching his particular method, then yes, I’m interested in teaching a particular approach to thinking. Now the point here I would want to make, which is often misinterpreted, is that people believe I am against Plato and the gang of three. That is not true, I think what they provided is one type of thinking which is particularly useful for making the best of the past and in discovering the truth but it is not adequate, it is not sufficient. It is like the front left wheel of a car is fine, there is nothing wrong with the front left wheel, but it is not adequate. So, my concern with Plato, what I call the gang of three, is that they didn’t provide a constructive mode of thinking and in a changing world where we want to construct, build, make things better, we need a constructive mode. Now a constructive mode really means two things, one is the ability for people to work constructively, co-operatively, and western culture really doesn’t have a constructive mode of thinking to match the argument mode and that’s where the six hats came in. And the other aspect of constructive thinking, of course, is creativity and new ideas to meet new circumstances where the old routines don’t apply. So, you’re quite right, Plato did set up his Academy and my Institute is in a sense an attempt to provide a base for teaching thinking. In that sense there is a similarity but not in the sense that I claim that I am the equivalent of Plato.

A.C.- You’ve said in the past that the business community has had more interest in thinking than the other parts of the community. How do you see the relevance of the Centre to the business community in Australia. ?

Edward - Well I think the relevance of the Centre to the business community of Australia is directly this. That whenever I come to Australia, which is roughly once a year, I give seminars and some people come to the seminars for two days and that’s it. What the Centre does is make available, permanently, access to my methods and training. So that’s one level. The other is the Centre can become a focus for organising different business groups in order to come together and apply thinking methods to their own problems, to their own concerns. For instance you might have a round table of insurance people or you might have a round table of people concerned with energy supply. To look at, and focus on common needs and common problems and use some new thinking. So both in terms of the continued sustained training which otherwise doesn’t take place except on my short visits and also as a base to allow business people to use the techniques, get a round table discussion with each other, to focus on and perhaps develop opportunities or solve problems.

A.C.- So the business community should see it as a neutral place where they can meet …

Edward - Oh absolutely, I mean thinking is neutral, everyone’s got brains and how we make better use of those is going to make a difference in whatever we are doing. I would like to see not just the business community, I would like to see Government saying, "Okay we’ve got a problem, we’ve got a concern with this" let’s have some new thinking on it. The point about new thinking is that it is additive. In other words if you’re at the buffet and there’s extra dishes on the buffet you’re not forced to take them. But if they seem very attractive, you’ll want to take them.

A.C.- You obviously think a lot about the future and have a great deal of contact with leading corporations around the globe. What do you see as the major issues facing Australian corporations in the new millennium ?

Edward - Well I think really one of the things facing all corporations everywhere is that we are still to some extent, and for good reason, in what I call the survival and maintenance mode. The survival maintenance mode means that individual executive managers just want to survive until tomorrow, until the next quarter or until the next year. Let’s keep going, let’s survive because in the past when the economic base line was growing, then it was enough just to survive, to be efficient, to be competent, and when problems arose, to solve them and you would keep growing because the economic baseline was growing. Today worldwide there is a lot of competition and in some areas there is an oversupply of goods and services, at least for people who can pay for them. So survival and competence isn’t enough, competence is becoming a commodity. Everyone can be competent. So now we’re much more into competence as a baseline. Now we’re into value creation, what value can we create ? and value creation, whether one likes it or not, requires some input of creativity and new thinking.

A.C.- So in terms of Australia, globally, obviously there are things like niche marketing. Developing specialised products, specialised services which are not competing head on because they are making their own market. But given the relatively higher cost of Australian labour compared to Indonesia, Thailand and of course, China, which will come on stream, I don’t think Australia is ever going to be the low cost supplier, so that leaves two other options. One is the high quality premium supplier, which is possible, and the other is the differentiated product. Products which really have a very special value, what I call integrated value, and that needs fundamentally, a lot of new thinking.

Edward - Now just along those lines, there’s been an increasing debate recently on the role of the business corporation in society . Views range from the notion that the primary function of business is purely to make a profit, to the other end of the scale where some suggest that business should be an agent of social change. What is your view on this ?

A.C.- Well, I take both views, I certainly don’t take the extreme view that we just want to get on with making money and we’ll just survive and adapt to whatever society sets us. Also I don’t agree with the other extreme view that just because business is making money they must use all that money to make society better. But let me take a simple example, business is the biggest employer in any country, or at least it should be, occasionally Government is, okay now business is the biggest employer and business has every right to say "the people we are getting are not making a useful contribution therefore we would like more say in education. We want people coming to us who have a fundamental basic maths, they communicate, they have thinking skills" and I think business does have a right and a duty to contribute to education thinking. To say "this is what we need, we want to be heard", I don’t think business should be terrified of educators and say "oh, we don’t understand, this is not our business", so that is a way business can contribute.

Edward - In terms of other areas, such as ecological impact and so on, the path of business is the way in which resources are brought to bare on things, so I think business can take a lead in terms of doing things. Now the point I want to emphasise here is that when I’m looking at business I don’t just mean providing money, I mean providing people, providing leadership, providing skills, people getting involved in thinking about these things. It’s not just a matter of contributing to a charity or to a campaign. In other words, I’m not looking at business just as a money cow which should be supporting everything. But the skills of people in business, which are practical operative skills, skills concerned with risk reward, should be made available in the community. Otherwise by default, it is left to politicians who have a very different mind set, the mind set of survival. So I think business should contribute but not just in the sense that it’s just providing money.

A.C.- What do you see then are the biggest problems facing the globe over the next fifty years ?

Edward - Well clearly there can be things like shortage of water in many countries because the water consumption of developed countries goes shooting up. There are clearly local conflicts, the Middle East, Northern Ireland. There are problems of breakdowns in the Soviet Union and possibly difficult changes in China. There are ecological problems, but I really think the main difficulty is this lack of motivation, incentives and thinking methods to work co-operatively and constructively. I think that is the major deficiency, all these other problems become, I wouldn’t say solvable because that is a big claim but you could do better in all these other problems if we develop habits of for instance of thinking.

A.C.- So our biggest crisis, our biggest challenge is "how are we going to unite as one race" ?

Edward - Well not necessarily unite, we can still be separate, but how can we work together co-operatively and constructively. This is our biggest challenge.


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