Book Summary and Critique: Serious Creativity

Edward deBono


          The central focus of this book is lateral thinking -- the process by which we change our concepts and perceptions and generate new ones, thus arriving at usable ideas. Since concepts, perceptions, and ideas are involved in every activity that requires thinking, every person -- unless he/she is involved only in repeated automatic routines -- needs some skill in lateral thinking.

          The need for creativity. Creative thinking is rapidly growing in importance; it will soon be as fundamental to business as finance, raw materials, and personnel. Organizations that are competent still have great potential, which will remain unfulfilled unless they can generate powerful new ideas and put them into action. In fact, as all organizations reach the same plateau of competence, the next source of competitive advantage will come from better concepts.

          To rise from competition to "sur/petition" (in which a company is "in a class by itself" because it offers an integrated set of customer values, as opposed to a line of products or services), a business will need increasingly powerful conceptual thinking. But since the mind can only see what it is prepared to see, new concepts will not come from the analysis of data. That's why an organization must be able to create new concepts.

          But creative thinking is just as important for companies still climbing towards the plateau of competence, because it helps them find better ways of achieving quality, cutting costs, and continuously improving every aspect of their operations.

          On a broader scale, the world's many -- and increasingly difficult -- social and economic problems will typically not yield to the simple analytic technique of finding and removing the cause. In many cases, the cause cannot be removed, and we must "design" a way forward by creating new concepts. And these can come only from creative thinking.

          Creativity and the brain. The human brain is designed not for creativity but for survival. It is a self-organizing system, excellent at forming patterns from the world around it and then integrating new information according to these patterns. That is how perception works, and if the brain did not work in this way, life would be totally impossible.

          The key fact about these patterns is that they are not symmetrical: the path from a dominant, established thought-pattern to a new, less-obvious one may be very roundabout, but the path from the non-obvious pattern, once identified, back to the established one can be quite direct. This is why creative ideas seem so "logical" in hindsight. And it is why we mistakenly believe that logic alone can lead us to creative insight.

          It cannot, for what we perceive as "logic" is powerfully influenced by the time sequence of our experience, which sets up our concepts and perceptions, our ways of doing things, and even our structures and institutions. We may need to break free of this time sequence in order to make the full use of the locked-up potential of our experience.

          We do this by "cutting across" our thought patterns -- by moving directly to the less-obvious ideas that seem so "logical" in hindsight. We see this process at work in sudden insights, when we make unexpected connections, or in humor, where a joke leads us to a connection that we "knew" was there all along. But we can also employ the deliberate, systematic techniques of lateral thinking to stimulate the crosscutting and apply it to all kinds of situations.

          It should now be clear that creativity is not simply a way to make things better. We need it if we are to make full use of the information and experience already available to us -- but locked up in old structures, patterns, concepts, and perceptions.

          What creativity is not. (1) Mystical. Creativity is not a mysterious talent that some people have and others can only envy. Lateral thinking can be learned, practiced, and used by everyone, although, as with any skill, some will be better at it than others. Learning lateral thinking will not make everyone a genius, but it will supplement existing thinking skills with a valuable ability to generate new ideas.

          (2) Release/being "natural." The traditional view that creative thinking is only a matter of releasing people from inhibitions and fears is old-fashioned and inadequate. The natural behavior of the brain is to form patterns and to stick to them; that is why the brain is so excellent at making sense of the world. So "release" from fears and inhibitions will give us only a slight increase in creativity.

          Being effectively creative requires some unnatural mental processes, such as setting up "provocations" and then moving, in systematic ways, from provocations to new ideas.

          (3) "Crazy." The "crazy" approach to creativity is very superficial and has held back the seriousness with which creative thinking should be treated. It is based on insufficient understanding of what needs to happen in creative thinking.

          Creative thinking is not a shotgun approach in which we shoot out ideas in the hope that one will be useful. We do need to escape the restrictive effects of judgment, but we can do so in a much more powerful and deliberate manner using the formal and systematic techniques of lateral thinking. These can be used by individuals; groups are not essential, as they are in traditional brainstorming, which is based on the "crazy" view of creativity.

          The importance of technique. It's not enough just to have a creative attitude and then to wait for something to happen. We need systematic techniques that will produce new ideas.

          Such processes as "challenge," "alternatives," and "provocation" can all be learned as deliberate techniques which can be applied to different situations -- problem solving, improvement, opportunity design, and others. Twenty-five years of experience have shown that the systematic processes, tools, and techniques of lateral thinking can be learned and do work.

          "Serious creativity" in organizations. Because creativity seems such a good idea, people assume it does not need pushing. But it does, because people are much more inclined towards problem solving and information gathering. Creativity needs energizing. It needs a "process champion" -- a senior person who will fight for it; otherwise, not much will happen.

          Furthermore, creative thinking should be established not only in its own right, but also to supercharge such ongoing programs as quality, cost-cutting, and continuous improvement. Some leading organizations, such as DuPont and Prudential, are already moving along this important road. "Serious" vs. "superficial" creativity. Today, most organizations pay lip service to the importance of creativity, in the form of mainly cosmetic claims in their corporate advertising. Some derive an unwarranted complacency from the minor creative efforts they are making. But by and large, creativity is still regarded as something peripheral and as a luxury. And unfortunately, even many practitioners of creativity have not advanced beyond believing that it is enough to encourage people to be "a little bit crazy."

          But the successful organizations of the future have already begun to think differently. They know that serious creativity is the key to unlocking their potential. And they know that there are principled, structured ways to introduce and use serious creativity in a serious manner.


          A. SIX THINKING HATS. This is a framework process that applies to thinking in general within an organization. Each of the fundamental modes of thinking behavior is symbolized by a hat of a different color, so that thinking can be switched at will from one mode to another, and a particular type of thinking can be requested at any time. Thus, critical (negative) thinking can be made more productive by restricting its use to the right moment. The Six Hats provide a concrete framework for moving away from traditional argumentative/adversarial thinking to the cooperative exploration of a subject [See Table 2].

          B. CREATIVE PAUSE. A very brief pause, within the mind of the thinker, to consider whether there might be an alternative way of doing things -- a willingness to give momentary, creative attention to any point. In the smooth flow of thinking or discussion, much is taken for granted. But the creative pause allows the thinker to linger constructively and thus to let new possibilities emerge.

          C. SIMPLE FOCUS. We normally think only about problems and difficulties that force us to pay attention. Yet powerful creative results can be obtained by focusing on matters that everyone else has ignored. The Simple Focus is a willingness to note a point as a potential focus for creative effort. There's no need to generate ideas from these focus-points; just noticing them is sufficient.

          D. CHALLENGE. The creative challenge is one of the most fundamental processes of lateral thinking. It is not an attack, a criticism, or an attempt to show why an idea is inadequate. Rather, it is a challenge to uniqueness. It asks, "Is this the only possible way?". It assumes that we're doing something in a certain way for reasons that once existed -- but may no longer be valid. And it assumes that in all cases, there may be a better way.

          The creative challenge can be directed either at the matter itself, at traditional thinking about it, or at the thinking that's taking place at any moment: "Why do we have to look at it this way?". It can be directed at the factors that shape our thinking: the underlying concepts and assumptions, the boundaries, the supposedly "essential" factors, the avoidance factors, and the either/or polarizations. The creative challenge enables us to take a direct look at these factors to decide whether they are really necessary.

          We can also challenge "continuity" -- i.e., doing something in a certain way merely because it was done that way yesterday. Specifically, we can challenge the following kinds of continuity:

  • neglect: no one has bothered to think about the matter;
  • lock-in: it has to fit in with other matters, processes, etc.;
  • complacency: repeated success precludes rethinking;
  • time-sequence: our thinking is limited by the sequence in which our experiences have occurred.

          E. ALTERNATIVES. The very essence of creativity is the search for alternatives. But this particular technique of lateral thinking involves the willingness to stop to look for alternatives -- even when there is no apparent need to do so, even when the next step is logical and available -- instead of being satisfied with the options that exist (in practice, the search must be cut off at some point).

          This technique also implies the willingness to "design" new alternatives by changing the situation instead of just being content to analyze the given situation.

          Also, it's important to ask, "Alternatives to what?", "Alternatives with respect to what fixed point?." The fixed point may be purpose (so that we seek other ways of achieving the same goal), group or resemblance, (we seek other ways of classifying the thing under consideration), or concept (we seek other abstract categories of which the thing is an example). We can usually define several fixed points in a situation and then seek alternatives for each of these.

          F. CONCEPTS. Here we try to draw out the abstract concept(s) underlying any procedure, process, method, or policy, whether they were designed or not. We can then strengthen or change the concept -- or find better ideas with which to put the concept into action.

          Concepts are expressed in broad, "blurry," nonspecific ways. There are "purpose" concepts, which relate to what we trying to do; "mechanism" concepts, which describe how an effect is going to be produced; and "value" concepts, which indicate how something will provide value.

          Every concept has to be put into action through a specific "idea." The purpose of working at concept level is to "breed" further ideas.

          Sometimes concepts are created directly. At other times it's useful to "pull back" from any idea to discover the concept behind it.

          G. THE CONCEPT FAN. This one is particularly useful for "achievement" thinking, for figuring out "how we get to where we want to be," as with problem solving and task completion. The concept fan is an elaborated way of seeking alternatives by using concepts to "cascade" further alternatives.

          To use the Concept Fan, we work backwards -- from the purpose or objective of our creative thinking, to the "road concepts" or "directions" that we would have to take to get there. Then we continue backwards from the directions to the underlying concepts, which are the ways of moving in that direction. There may be several layers of concepts, ranging from the broader to the more specific. We continue backwards from the concepts to the "ideas," which are practical and specific ways of putting the concepts into action.

          The Concept Fan can start at any point and then move either forwards to the purpose of the thinking or backwards to the specific ideas.

          H. PROVOCATION. In any self-organizing information system (such as perception), it's absolutely essential to have provocation and movement, in order to cut across patterns. And crosscutting is necessary because of the asymmetric nature of patterns themselves -- that is, something that's obvious in hindsight may be invisible to foresight.

          I have coined a new word -- "po" (for "Provocative Operation") -- to signal that a statement is intended directly as a provocation, as a deliberately irrational jump from established patterns of thinking and experience, e.g., "Po, planes should land upside down." It's as if we've purposefully jumped onto a mental side-track, from which we can then find our way back to the main track and thus open up a whole new avenue of thinking.

          Arising provocations. A creative thinker may choose to treat as a provocation any statement, remark, or event that he/she experiences, whether or not it was intended as a provocation. An idea that seems unsound or even ridiculous can nevertheless be a provocation to move forward to ideas that are useful. Provocations can thus be said to "arise" without being deliberately set up.

          Escape provocations are deliberately set up by the creative thinker, who seizes upon any point that's "taken for granted" or normal in the situation and then proceeds to "escape" from this. After saying "po," he/she may negate the point, cancel it, drop it, or simply do without it. (Note: the "taken-for-granted" point must never be a problem, complaint, or difficulty.)

          Stepping-stone provocations. These are also deliberate ways of setting up provocations. It is important that the provocations be set up boldly and without any thought whatsoever as to how they might be used. There's no point in forming a provocation by simply massaging an existing idea. The stepping-stone provocations should be set up mechanically, as follows:

          Reversal: The normal direction of action is reversed to form the what-if provocation, which now conveys action in the opposite direction.

          Exaggeration: The normal measurements or dimensions (number, size, weight) are exaggerated either up or down, but beyond normal (a downward exaggeration should never reach zero).

          Distortion: The normal relationship between involved parties or the normal sequence of events is altered in an arbitrary fashion to create a "distortion," which forms the provocation.

          Wishful thinking: Here the provocation takes the form of a fantasy wish: "Wouldn't it be nice if...". The wish must be something that you do not realistically expect to happen; it should not be an actual desire or objective.

          I. MOVEMENT. Once we have created a provocation, the next step is to move forward to the new idea. "Movement" is not just a suspension of judgment; it is an active mental operation. It can be a general willingness to move from an established idea to a new one, but there are also systematic and formal ways of directing the process.

          Extract a Principle: We extract one principle, concept, feature, or aspect from the provocation and ignore the rest. We seek to build a new idea around this one item.

          Focus on the Difference: In what way is the provocation different from the usual way of doing things? Can we move forward from that difference to a useful new idea? Even if the difference is tiny, we still focus on it, in order to defend against the idea-killing objection, "but that's the same as...".

          Moment-to-Moment: We visualize the provocation being put into action -- even if this is impossible in reality. We then watch to see what would happen "moment to moment." We try to pull out a useful new idea from our "observation." Positive Aspects: Here we focus on those aspects of the provocation that are directly positive. We ignore the rest and seek to build an idea from these. Under What Circumstances: We look for special circumstances under which the provocation would offer some direct value, just as it is. We then seek to move forward to a useful idea, either for those circumstances or -- more usefully -- for other circumstances as well.

          J. THE RANDOM INPUT. Though it seems totally illogical, this is one of the most powerful creative techniques, simply because the brain is so good at forming connections between even the most unlikely terms. The principle is that starting from a different point increases the likelihood of opening up patterns different from those you would have used if you'd started from the "center."

          The most convenient form of random input is the random word, which can be obtained in a number of ways (e.g., using the position of the second hand of a watch to select a word from a list of 60). This word is then used to open up new ideas around the chosen focus. The process can also work with objects, pictures, readings, exhibits, and so on -- as long as the input is random.


          (1) THE STRATAL. Put together five unconnected statements about the situation and then see what new idea emerges. Don't try to make the statements descriptive or comprehensive, or to cover all aspects. To make the stratal more random, write statements on slips of paper, which are put into a bag from which five slips are drawn.

          (2) The Filament Technique. We begin with the typical characteristics of whatever it is we are focusing on. From each of these, we create a "filament" of associated ideas.

          Passive use: the filaments are considered until an idea "emerges" from the sensitizing process.

          Active (or "forced") use: in each filament, items are picked out, and a determined effort is made to force these items together to give a new idea.


  • FOCUS: to define the focus and identify changing focuses of the creative effort; to seek alternative definitions of the focus; choose subfocuses.
  • CHALLENGE: to challenge traditional/existing thinking, as well as the thinking taking place during a creative session; challenge the "surroundings" of the thinking: assumptions, boundaries, and so on.
  • ALTERNATIVE: to find different ways of doing things and of satisfying a defined fixed point.
  • CONCEPT FAN: to find different ways of doing things by working with abstract underlying concepts. Useful in "achievement" thinking.
  • CONCEPTS: to focus deliberate attention on concepts; extract and crystallize concepts; pull back from ideas to concepts; modify and change concepts; find ways of putting the concepts into action. Useful in all areas driven by concepts.
  • ESCAPE PROVOCATION: to look at existing methods and thinking. Helpful wherever challenge is useful, because it turns the challenge into a provocation. Can be applied to the creative thinking that is taking place at the moment.
  • STEPPING-STONE PROVOCATION: to create radical changes in the whole system or approach. The most provocative of the techniques.
  • WISHFUL THINKING PROVOCATION: to generate ideas from a greenfield situation. Generally works best when applied to the whole system.
  • RANDOM INPUT: to provide fresh ideas on any occasion; get underway in greenfield situations; get started again when ideas have run out; seek additional and different ideas when there are already some ideas on the table.
  • STRATAL: (at the beginning of the thinking) to allow idea to emerge; (later on) to see what might emerge from the thinking already done.
  • FILAMENT TECHNIQUE: useful whenever there is a known set of requirements. Passive use: to let ideas emerge. Active (or "forced") use: works somewhat like Random Word.


  • White hat: introduce information, factual thinking.
  • Red hat: intuition and feeling.
  • Black hat: caution and the logical negative; helps put these in their proper position as a later part of the treatment of the idea, e.g., "We don't need the Black Hat just yet."

    A key benefit of the Six Hats method is the ability to restrict Black Hat thinking to certain specific times -- to assess the ideas or to point out the drawbacks to be overcome -- instead of being negative and critical at every possible moment.

  • Yellow hat: the logical positive; asks for a positive and constructive view of the emergent idea.

    The yellow hat is an effective way to direct thinking to search for feasibility and values, so that, for example, an emerging idea can be given constructive attention at the outset. Someone who opposes the idea might be asked to try to discover value in the idea and to suggest how it could be carried out.

  • Green hat: creative effort and creative thinking; asks for a specific creative effort. The green hat is a specific request for a creative effort but does not indicate how that effort is to be made. It may be a simple pause in order to consider other possibilities or an attempt to suggest alternatives. Other lateral thinking techniques can also be used at this point. The main value of the green hat is the space it makes for creative effort.

  • Blue hat: control of the thinking/creative process itself.

  • Sequence: At times, a simple sequence of hats might used almost directly as a creative procedure. In such cases the sequence might be:
    • White Hat: the information base. What do we know?
    • Green Hat: alternatives, suggestions, and ideas.
    • Yellow Hat: feasibility, benefits, and values of the idea.
    • Black Hat: difficulties, dangers, problems, and points of caution.
    • Red Hat: intuition and feelings about the ideas.
    • Blue Hat: bring closure to session.