One of my heroes has always been Edward de Bono.
He’s the man who coined the phrase ‘lateral thinking’.
Lateral thinking is the truest kind of creative thinking.
What most of us do is vertical thinking.
We have a thought, and see if it gets agreement.
If it does, we build on that thought.
Then we see if that thought gets more agreement.
If it does, we build another thought on that thought.
And we keep building, thought on thought.
As long as we get agreement.
We never go anywhere really fresh, because we have to get agreement for every incremental thought.
De Bono maintained that the problem with our thinking was that we were limited by a yes/no response.
We offer up a thought, and someone will either say yes or no.
If our thought is recognisably sensible, they say yes, and we carry on thinking in that line.
If our thought isn’t recognizably sensible, they say no.
And we stop, abandon that route and look elsewhere.
So actually we are using thinking as a means of seeking approval.
Not for exploration or discovery.
He said what was needed was a third response.
One that would encourage exploration of ideas that weren’t recognizably sensible yet.
One that would stimulate thinking without judgement.
He called this response ‘PO’.
Short for ‘possible’.
And this response would mean “Well this thought doesn’t make sense yet. But let’s see where it goes, how far we can push it, how much juice there is in it, before we make a decision.”
This encourages thinking as a process of discovery rather than ticking boxes.
It almost demands that your start point is something that would seem ridiculous according to conventional thinking.
You see the mind is a machine for coming up with answers.
The mind’s job is to make sense of things.
So if we start off with a sensible answer there really isn’t anywhere creative left to go.
But suppose we start off with something absolutely ridiculous.
Then, as the mind tries to make sense of it, some really interesting things might crop up.
That’s why we need PO.
To give us the space to be ridiculous before it gets killed by the need to be predictably sensible.
So that’s the theory, how would it work in the real world?
Well, for instance, one evening at the agency we were sitting around working on the Third World debt crisis.
This is a crisis brought about by the world’s banks, not governments.
To solve it, the banks would have to write off their debts.
How could we make the banks want to write off their debts?
How could we even get the message into the banks?
We had no client and no money.
Plus which there’s no media inside the banks.
We were stuck in a rut and we couldn’t see a way out.
The previous week we’d been to a de Bono lecture, so we thought we’d try his technique.
One of the guys said, “PO: you could get the Royal Mint to print on every tenth coin ‘Give This Coin To The Third World”.
Now, on the face of it, that’s a ridiculous statement.
The Royal Mint wouldn’t do it.
But under the rules of PO, creativity demands you see if you can develop the thought.
So we said, “Maybe not metal coins, but banks use paper money, and we could print on that ourselves.”
Then we said, “Yes, and paper money is actually a medium that gets inside the banks to virtually every employee.”
Then, better yet, we found out it was illegal.
If currency is defaced it has to be taken out of circulation and replaced.
This is not something the banks do lightly.
Forms are filled in, in triplicate.
Then more forms are filled in, in triplicate.
And then more forms are sent off into all the various parts of the banks with the message that was on the money reproducing itself as it goes.
So that’s a truly viral media.
We went to Rymans the stationers, and bought little printing kits.
We made up stamps saying, STOP YOUR BANK KILLING CHILDREN – CANCEL THE THIRD WORLD DEBT.
And we began printing it on our money.
Knowing that each bank note we spent would now help spread the message through the banks.
Reproducing itself many times.
Did it work?