Japan must think outside the box if it hopes to get ahead: creativity guru

by Julian Ryall

Japan needs to set up a “Ministry of Creativity” to think its way out of the economic slump it has endured for a decade, according to the world’s leading authority in the field of creative and conceptual thinking.

In Japan recently to give a lecture organized by the American Management Association, Edward De Bono said creativity will be crucial to getting the country back on its feet, but it faces some unique challenges in tapping into its vein of creativeness.

In an interview with The Japan Times, De Bono, author of more than 60 books on creativity, including “Six Thinking Hats” and “Lateral Thinking,” pitched the new ministry because “Japan is having economic problems and will continue to have problems.”

“If you’ve got China on your doorstep, where the average production wage is $100 a month and, I’m told, it can be as high as $3,000 a month here, that’s a hell of a difference,” he said. “What will happen — as is already happening — is that Japanese companies are opening factories in China, initially to serve the Chinese market.

“But once they’re there, they are going to be serving the world market. And that’s going to have a drastic impact as it means employment here certainly won’t be expanding,” he said.

As a result, Japan has two ways to compete with China’s cheap production costs: It can automate, although this isn’t much of a solution as it does not create employment; or it can put a lot of emphasis on creativity.

“It has to be a continuous emphasis on creativity,” he said. “You are going to need to keep staying ahead, and that’s going to be difficult.”

Simply relying on the quality of products from Japan won’t work, he pointed out, as “China is coming on in terms of quality and technology, so it’s creativity that is going to be the key.”

De Bono is optimistic Japan can think its way out of its crisis: “The ability to work is already in place, the capital structure is there and I think fundamentally that Japan can be creative. But it is done in a different way here.

“What happens here is that people don’t want to change, they don’t want to let go of the traditional, feudalistic, group-centered, hierarchical, know-your-position approach,” he said. “But they don’t need to: The method of change is to learn an additional game.”

De Bono, who has been a faculty member at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Harvard, urges use of his “creativity game.”

Using a card game analogy, De Bono suggests that a bridge player switch to, for example, poker. This forces the player to think and act differently; apply the same simple rationale to a business and creativity is set free without threatening the original skill.

“You have to add on a skill rather than force people to change,” he said.

De Bono has authored 67 books in 38 languages — “One more than Harry Potter” — and his methodologies and innovative ideas are in demand at dozens of firms, including IBM, Siemens, Shell, Exxon, NTT, Motorola and Microsoft.

And more books are coming.

“People ask how can there be so many books on thinking, but I say look at how many books there are about golf, or sailing, or dieting. Compared to human thinking, these are small areas,” he said.

“There is a lot more that needs to be done about thinking. We’re so complacent; we don’t even conceive that our thinking isn’t absolutely perfect. It isn’t, it’s very, very limited.”

De Bono coined the term “lateral thinking,” the first time anyone had put creativity on a logical basis, identifying the brain as a self-organizing information system, he said, that forms asymmetrical patterns.

“Because any valued creative idea is logical in hindsight, for 2,400 years we have said that logic is enough and that we don’t need creativity,” he said, noting life would be impossible without self-organizing systems like the brain.

Take, for example, the task of getting dressed. If someone had 11 items of clothing to put on one morning and decided to see how many different ways this could be accomplished, it would take 76 years, moving at a rate of one item per minute, as there are 39,916,800 different ways.

“But the brain doesn’t do that,” De Bono said. “The brain makes routine patterns and tells itself, ‘This is a getting dressed situation, let’s find a pattern, a routine.’

“The brain is excellent at this because it’s asymmetrical, and it is understanding this and applying this to creative thinking that gives a basis that hitherto we haven’t had,” he said.

“The point I’m making is that essentially, Western software for thinking was developed by the Ancient Greek ‘Gang of Three’ — Plato, Aristotle and Socrates — which is all about recognizing standard situations, providing standard answers and then arguing if there is a difference. We’ve done very little in software for thinking for 2,400 years.

“We’ve got tens of thousands of people writing software for computers, but for the human mind, virtually nothing.”

To meet this need, De Bono produces software for human thinking — including lateral thinking, parallel thinking and perceptual thinking — that is applicable to everyone from 4-year-olds in school to the top executives of a firm like Prudential Insurance.

Prudential has been one of the major beneficiaries of De Bono’s unconventional approach to ideas. Using the utterly illogical provocation “You will die before you die” led to the introduction of the “living needs benefits,” a policy that immediately pays out 75 percent of the death benefits if a person is diagnosed with a serious illness. The remaining 25 percent of the policy is paid out after death.

Living needs has proved very successful — because it provides money for health care yet has a low risk for the insurer as the length of time between diagnosis and death is usually very short — and has been adopted by most U.S. insurers.

“Research done at Harvard, with which I fully agree, shows 90 percent of the areas of thinking are areas of perception, not of logic at all,” he said. “If you see perceptually, you don’t see the consequences, you don’t see alternatives, you don’t see the broader picture.”

Another crimp on creative thinking is that Western society traditionally argues from standard, basic starting points that work well in science and technology — for example, a scientist dealing with the element iron knows its properties, which are predictable and constant — but people don’t always react predictably.

“While we have made tremendous progress in science and technology, we’ve made virtually no progress in human affairs because our method of thinking is simply not design-based,” De Bono said, adding that mankind is operating well below full thinking capacity.