Books: A gong system that just doesn't ring true

For all the guru's undoubted achievements, this weird but not wonderful book shows him in decline, says Stefan Stern.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Edward de Bono



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In John Osborne's 1956 play Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter throws down his newspaper and complains: 'Do the Sunday papers make you feel ignorant? ... I said, do the papers make you feel you're not so brilliant after all?'

The busy manager reading one of Edward de Bono's 67 published books might find himself sharing Porter's sentiments. But even when his writing has been challenging and difficult, de Bono's reputation has survived intact.

For four decades he has influenced the way people and organisations think.

He created the term 'lateral thinking', and with his work on so-called 'parallel thinking', made possible by his 'six thinking hats' methodology, he provided a powerful alternative to business' traditional decision-making processes.

The thinking-hats approach works like this: de Bono argues that ego and human personality impede effective discussion. To avoid this, he recommends forming six teams to look at a problem from a specific point of view, with a specific mindset. These mindsets can be thought of as different thinking hats, each in a different colour; for example, blue for rational or red for emotional. Having tested a proposal wearing each hat, a top team should be able to make a decision unhindered by ego and prejudice.

Six is clearly de Bono's favourite number. First, there were the six hats, then he developed the 'six action shoes'. And now de Bono offers us the 'six value medals'. Which provokes the inevitable question: hasn't he heard of the seven dwarves? If they ever asked him for advice, it wouldn't just be Grumpy who was left feeling grumpy. And in the rush for this next set of six, de Bono has gone straight from hats via shoes to medals. This would appear to leave the reader somewhat under-dressed and over-exposed.

Apologies for the flippancy. It would be out of place with de Bono's earlier work, much of which was original and has stood the test of time.

But in this new book, looking at the modish and more slippery concept of values, he has over-reached himself. The result is a weird but not terribly wonderful work that would have Jimmy Porter ranting in an instant.

The author starts with the important point that in an era of commoditisation, it is an organisation's values that help differentiate it from its rivals.

And values underpin our decision-making and judg- ments. 'Just as a small-scale builder would use a spirit level to check something was level, so we need to make frequent value checks on our decisions to make sure things turn out right,' he says. 'Values determine our perception, whether or not we are conscious of those values, and then what we see tends to support that perception.'

De Bono recommends scanning our values to see what sort of organisation we are working for, and whether planned decisions fit with our value system.

And there are, yes, six different types of value medal to be worn: the gold medal (human values); the silver medal (organisational values, including financial performance); the steel medal (quality values); the glass medal (innovation, simplicity and creativity); the wood medal (environmental values); and the brass medal ('perceptual' values).

These values, de Bono says, must be balanced to enable us to make the best decisions for our businesses and organisations. But unlike the six hats approach, which is genuinely robust and useful, this meddling with medals feels odd and horribly flimsy. De Bono's suggested 'scanning' diagnostic model is dreadfully over-engineered. And in the end you just doubt whether this way of looking at decisions, through the lens of not terribly well defined 'values', has any practical use for business people at all.

May the Lord save and protect our gurus and thinkers. They make life more interesting, and de Bono has achieved much more in one lifetime than most. But this latest work contains all the signs of a guru in decline.

The writing is weird and bathetic - perhaps an indication that editors don't dare to tamper too much with the words of esteemed thinkers such as de Bono.

'There are basically two types of mistake,' he writes at one point.

'1. Something has been done in the wrong way, which should have been done in the right way.' And '2. You do everything right, but for some reason the project fails.'

I should say that on balance this book is more of a type 1 than a type 2 mistake, but maybe I'm just not thinking straight.

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