Being Right all the Time


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“(…) being right all the time acquires a huge importance in education, and there is this terror of being wrong. The ego is so tied to being right that later on in life you are reluctant to accept that you are ever wrong, because you are defending not the idea but your self-esteem. (…) this terror of being wrong means that people have enormous difficulties in changing ideas.”

[Edward de Bono]

Dr. de Bono developed the concept and tools of lateral thinking, which has had a major impact on the way we think. His specific contribution has been to put the subject of creativity, often regarded as mystical, on solid ground. In his work, he has shown how creative thinking is a necessary behavior in self-organizing systems.

The quote above is from Po: Beyond Yes and No and is part of a robust collection of learning tools de Bono has created to help children and adults acquire and exercise the skill of thinking, with a twist. Traditional thinking has to do with analysis, judgment, and argument. This kind of thinking may work when we can identify the most common pitfalls in arguments and reason logically. Starting with the notion that “right and wrong are fuzzy concepts.”

As Isaac Asimov says in an essay he penned in response to a letter from a young English Lit specialist who tried to prove how wrong closely held beliefs are from one century to the next, right and wrong are not absolutes.  Asimov uses the essay to dismantle the argument systematically.

System thinking is more useful than goal-based thinking because of our biases. They are so basic and pervasive to human thinking that we're all making mistakes every day without even noticing. Learning to think better involves developing strategies for reasoning and decision-making. Our decision-making improves when our ability to understand how our biases inform our beliefs and lead us astray improves. 

De Bono wants to get away from the judgmental, confrontational style in our conversations towards a more open, positive, creative, and playful way of discussing. That is also because traditional thinking was sufficient in a stable world where we could identify standard situations and apply standard solutions. By contrast, we now live in a constantly changing world and standard solutions may not work anymore.

We need to design our way forward with new thinking. Our success in business (and life) depends on our ability to think creatively and constructively.

This is a subject he explores in the very pragmatic Six Thinking Hats, which he wrote to help groups communicate better when making decisions. “The main difficulty of thinking is confusion,” he says. “We try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope, and creativity all crowd in on us. It is like juggling with too many balls.”

The six “thinking hats” are different ways of looking at an issue that has to be decided:

  • under the white one presents facts
  • under the red hat one says how one feels about the issue
  • under the black hat one looks at the negative effects of the decision
  • under the yellow hat one looks at the positive effects of the decision
  • under the green hat one thinks of alternatives, and
  • under the blue hat one clarifies which kind of thinking is going on

When the different parts that go into decision making are brought into the open, thinking becomes clearer. De Bono's method is a way to make discussions more systematic and to allow for an exploration of both rational and emotional data points.

Having worked with several corporations, he is familiar with the typical meeting agendas:

At a Western-style meeting the participants sit there with their points of view and in many cases the conclusion they wish to see agreed upon. The meeting then consists of arguing through these different points of view to see which survives the criticism and which attracts the most adherents.

The person with the most power in the room can still derail the meeting agenda, especially when it is not clear what we are trying to accomplish based on where we are in the process — are we trying to build understanding? Maybe the task at hand is about shaping choices? When we skip these parts of the process and try to fast-track to making a decision, that's when we get into trouble. Because often those conversations do not lead to a strong, strategic impact.

Many of the major problems in the world cannot be solved by identifying and removing the cause, says de Bono. We need to design a way forward even if the cause remains in place. This is why understanding creativity is important.

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In the last year, I have been shifting my writing to align more closely with my reading and thinking — more systems than goals. This has accelerated my effectiveness at work, adding focus and depth to my learning and work and increasing clarity and effectiveness in my actions and product.

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