The Gospel according to Edward De Bono

Blair to Branson, Gorbachev to Gerry Adams: many and varied are those who have sat at the feet of the lord of lateral thinking and pope of H+. Dave Waller tracked the philosopher/guru to his Maltese birthplace but found it an unsettling experience.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I had a meeting at the Russian Politburo once.' Edward De Bono, the father of lateral thinking, is reminiscing. 'The chairman of the foreign affairs bureau had my book on conflict resolution open on his desk. "This isn't Gorbachev's copy," he said. "He's got his own".' A senior politician later told Dr De Bono his work was required reading in the Kremlin. De Bono probably wasn't too surprised about that: he's used to moving in high places. After all, this is a man who dined and advised at Chequers with the Blairs.

'I'm always meeting people,' he goes on. 'Like Thaksin Shinawatra, the ex-prime minister of Thailand (and now owner of Manchester City FC). He's a huge fan. He had me talk to his cabinet, and had a private breakfast with me.'

Let's hope De Bono picked up the bill - Shinawatra has since had his assets frozen by Thai prosecutors, who are investigating him for corruption. Then there's Richard Branson, Gerry Adams, the Eurythmics, the Pet Shop Boys and Francis Bacon. Everyone, it seems, has gratefully drunk from De Bono's overflowing intellectual well. 'I got a letter from the Australian cricket coach - I'd given the team a talk before the Ashes and they went out and smashed England. "Thanks for that," he'd written. "It was down to you".'

It's 40 years since De Bono invented the concept of 'lateral thinking'. In that time he has written 68 books, in 40 languages, with 1,300 people teaching his methods worldwide. He has garnered some major plaudits, including being named by a group of South African professors as one of the 250 people who have contributed most to mankind. He's even had a planet named after him. The International Astronomical Association stripped the distant planet DE73 of its drab moniker and renamed it 'EdeBono' in his honour.

The doctor, now 74, hangs his hat in London and the Channel Islands these days, and still spends a lot of his time making his international rounds. This week, his travels have taken him to an island closer to his heart, his home country of Malta. He sits at a table outside a seafood restaurant in the resort town of St Julian's, his back to a bay of luxury yachts. He is decked out in shirt, Mona Lisa tie and blazer, despite the heat of the afternoon sun. He is content and playful. He gives a toast: 'In Sweden they say: "My health, your health, the health of all pretty ladies".' This is De Bono at his most at ease, his assistant reveals. De Bono at home.

He has returned to Malta to host his annual seminar in creative thought at the island's university, the same that the young De Bono graced years ago as a student. He was just 15 when he enrolled in medical school, following seven generations of his family into the discipline (his father was a doctor, his mother a journalist). Now the university is home to his Institute for the Design and Development of Thinking, and 50 of his own disciples have made the pilgrimage to the Med - and parted with $400 - to learn from him.

The three-day course had kicked off the previous morning. And if De Bono's celebrity name-dropping suggests a man with wide appeal, his eclectic crew of students confirms that. Two of the attendees - a teacher and a management consultant - had made a 36-hour journey from Australia to be there. Among the rest were Mohammed Zuhair, manager of the Discover Islam Centre in Bahrain; a bunch of gung-ho young Dutch advertising creatives, eager to 'hear it from the guru himself'; and Bernhard Wolff, a backwards-talking comedian who appears on German TV (and YouTube) showing people 'how to make bananas'.

Things commenced with a representative of the university giving a run-down of De Bono's achievements. As befits one of the '250 most important people ever', when someone else was talking, even when they were talking about him, the doctor sat through it looking like he could drop off at any moment. He seemed to keep himself awake with sneaky bouts of lateral thinking, inverting his coffee cup and trailing his finger absently around the base as he stared off into space. Finally, however, his moment in the spotlight arrived. To a ripple of applause, he rose and shuffled across the stage, in his trademark garish tie and stripy socks, to sit next to an OHP and his trusty set of coloured pens. After fumbling with a clip-on mic, he opened three days of creative thinking in his gently commanding Oxbridge tones: 'Good morning ladies, gentlemen and blondes.'

We were then treated to a swift rundown of his big breakthrough: pioneering a way to treat creativity as a systematic process. Instead of sitting and waiting for that elusive bolt of heavenly inspiration to strike, he said, he had developed methods through which a thinker could bypass the brain's natural dead-ends and keep the flow of fresh ideas coming. He rattled through the spiel as if he had done it a thousand times before. Which, of course, he had.

Back at lunch in St Julian's, De Bono has another chance to discuss the thinking behind his thinking. It proves very hard to disagree with him - initially, at least. 'A lot of people see creativity as just messing around and waiting for something to happen,' he says, having ordered what turns out to be an unfeasibly large Mediterranean sea-bass. 'But there's a lot more to it than that. Philosophers are just playing around with words, whereas lateral thinking is very logical: you simply can't dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper. Physicians and mathematicians, you'll find, have no problems with my ideas.'

Business has been remarkably receptive too. The list of companies that has tuned into his methods is seemingly endless and includes pretty much all the corporate big guns you can think of, from Boeing to BT, and Nokia to Nestle. Siemens has a company-wide initiative to train people in the doctor's methods. His techniques apparently cut IBM meeting times to a quarter, and his sought-after training sessions can cost companies around $30,000.

In the face of increasing global competition and rapidly accelerating change, it's easy to see the appeal of someone peddling a systematic approach to being creative, especially when much management thinking is still rooted in the outdated manufacturing-based processes and structures of the last century. De Bono persuasively asserts that we should be treating creativity as seriously as capital, labour, machinery or IT. 'The name of the game in business is doing what you're supposed to do,' he says, 'because everything else is high-risk. We don't have a word in English that means "fully justified venture that for reasons beyond my control did not succeed". If you try something that doesn't work, it's a failure.'

And herein lies the heart of the De Bono conundrum. Stop there and you're left impressed with what is clearly a perceptive mind. His ideas, you suspect, would make a solid base for some sound developmental thinking. But left to its own devices, his ego is at least the equal of his intellect. In his first seminar, De Bono claimed to have revolutionised the oil industry by challenging the accepted wisdom that companies could only drill vertically downwards and not horizontally. Firms such as Shell were apparently kicking themselves for not thinking of that before. Does this mean Shell's pioneering new snake drill technology, the subject of the bendy straw ad campaign, is all down to one Edward De Bono? It would be hard to imagine him denying it, but we're sure Jaap Van Ballegooijen, its chief petroleum engineer, would have something to say on the subject.

De Bono also cited the example of a steel company that had used his methods to generate 21,000 ideas in one afternoon. 'It took them nine months to sort through them,' he said, happily. You can imagine the despair of the poor desk-jockey charged with that particular task, and the hit their productivity would have taken while they performed it. Having a lot of ideas is one thing. Having ideas that are actually any good is different altogether.

Soon the waiter delivers the gargantuan sea-bass, and it looks delicious. De Bono immediately picks up his glass of Tia Maria and splashes it liberally on his lunch. Of course, he's an expert at this too. 'On tuna you have limoncello, on cod Drambuie, and on salmon white Sambuca. It's delicious.' It looks disgusting. Is this lateral thinking? 'It's experimentation...'

The range of De Bono's apparent expertise is mind-boggling. You name the field, he has an answer. As to how valuable it is, that's up to you. His miracle, single-stroke cure for the famously troublesome politics of the Middle East, for example, was to suggest allowing each side to vote in the other's elections: 'The Israelis would never have elected Hamas, and the Palestinians would never have elected Sharon.' Northern Ireland, meanwhile, should have had a committee of elders, on which people were permanently placed, 'so that everyone got their sense of importance'. And how to solve the eternally contentious issue of penalty shoot-outs in football? In the event of a draw, the winner is the team whose goalkeeper has touched the ball the least.

Then there is De Bono's work with the Chinese. He believes that the Asian tiger, for all its drive and intelligence, has one key flaw that has held back its development: it lacks a possibilities system. Whereas people in the west are comfortable considering a raft of alternatives, the Chinese, he says, are able to deal only in certainties: what has happened and what will happen. Had they been able to consider other options, he insists, they would have overtaken us long ago. 'I'm in talks with the Chinese government,' he says. 'They are carrying out a pilot programme, and if it succeeds my methods may soon be used in four million schools across the country. China will soon be full of thinkers, and in 20 years the rest of the world will be a holiday camp.' You read it here first.

In his seminars, De Bono introduces his premise that modern critical thought remains over-reliant on the 'Greek gang of three' - Socrates, who developed argument; Plato, who introduced morals; and Aristotle, who added logic. Such concepts, he says, have remained the cornerstones of our thought for more than two millennia. De Bono's argument is that the system is fine, like the front left wheel of a car is fine, but it's not enough on its own. If the modern mind is a sports car, says De Bono, when it comes to creative or perceptual thinking it remains stuck in the driveway, sitting on bricks.

Hence the 'Six Thinking Hats' method, De Bono's alternative to Socratic argument. 'The way dialectic is exercised, there's very little value in it,' he says. 'If there was an element in argument that said "Let's bring out what's interesting, let's elaborate and develop it", then yes. But if each side stays in their fixed position being critical, it's very limited.' His system ensures each person in a discussion sees the subject from every possible point of view, and at the same time. They don a series of metaphorical coloured hats to denote which perspective they will adopt at any one moment - yellow for positive, black for negative, red for emotional and so on. The result: a more constructive conversation, and a boost to the millinery trade.

Again, sound in theory. Anyone who's ever sat in a meeting that involved two sides locking horns, thrashing it out and never getting anywhere will be familiar with the drawbacks of the adversarial system. But once again, De Bono's ego threatens to overwhelm his intellect. He proclaims his invention to be 'the biggest change in human thinking for 2,300 years'. Elsewhere he has even managed to revise Descartes' famous philosophical axiom, 'cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am)'. In De Bono's improvement, it becomes 'ago ergo erigo (I act therefore I construct/act)'. That this inelegant expression makes no sense whatsoever doesn't seem to matter a jot.

Other ideas shared over lunch include his new suggestion for Hollywood, in which films would be able to imitate a novelistic device, by using subtitles to convey a character's thoughts: 'A woman walks past; one character thinks "nice ankles", the other thinks "what an ugly face".' Or the one he'd kindly given Richard Branson, and his Virgin airlines, at breakfast recently. 'I gave him the idea that when he has empty spaces on his planes he should give tickets to pretty ladies. They don't have to do anything useful, they're just for decoration.' Branson apparently really likes the idea.

And here we hit upon the second central riddle in the De Bono make-up. As his many and varied business clients show, he has an enviable handle on the areas of intellect. Yet he appears blissfully unaware, even careless, of how he comes across and the impression he makes on other people.

Take the gender question, for example. Lunch involves at least four unsettling references to women, introduced apropos of nothing. The first is a 'true story from France', in which a Muslim woman goes to court seeking a divorce because her husband beats her up, only to find a female judge refusing the request because the Koran says it's okay for a man to beat his wife. He then delivers the startling - and unsubstantiated - statistics that the most common cause of death for a woman under the age of 44 in England is being killed by her husband, and that in Russia each year '85,000 women are killed by husbands or boyfriends'. He follows this up with a case in Malaysia in which a man divorced his wife by mobile phone. 'Supreme Court said it's absolutely valid,' he says. 'The intention was there, the witnesses were there, just ring up your wife and say "go, go, go".'

De Bono himself recently went through a divorce from Josephine, his wife of 34 years. It wasn't cheap: he had to sell his collection of private islands - in the Bahamas, Venice, Ireland and Australia - to fund it.

It looks like the good doctor's prodigious intellectual flow isn't going to dry up, or even slow down, any time soon. In his mid-seventies, he continues to plough new and varied furrows. His two sons (one an architect, the other, Caspar, managing director of FT Magazines) and three grandchildren will carry the De Bono name forward, yet there are signs that his thoughts are turning towards preserving his intellectual legacy. For one, he is in the process of setting up the World Centre for New Thinking, which he describes, in typically unblushing fashion, as 'like an intellectual Red Cross... a task force to generate ideas on any subject in the world'. There's nothing like a tight remit.

But the surest sign that he is seeking to secure immortality is H+, his new 'religion', the precepts of which were published last year. Unlike most other faiths, H+ (the H stands for happiness and humour, among other things) offers no concept of sin; rather, one simply has to adhere to a series of 'poms', positive resolutions to apply to daily life. Failure to complete a 'pom' is, however, punishable by a small fine. Made payable to Edward De Bono, of course. He has said he may give the proceeds to charity, but made no promises, claiming it might not provide sufficient punishment if he did so.

Another typical De Bono detail is the discreet hand signal he offers for followers to adopt. So that, be they on a university campus, in a recording studio or in the corporate boardroom, the devout may show others that they too know the H+ way: 'With your right index finger you touch the right side of your nose. If the other person responds by doing the same, then you take the same right index finger and touch the outer corner of your right eye.' Beats a masonic handshake any day.

If you're tempted to try this, you may be waiting a while before anyone gives you the sign back. At the time of writing, the book of H+ sat at 189,833 in Amazon.co.uk's sales ranking and had received a grand total of three customer reviews, each of which gave it a one-star rating. 'I didn't have the option to give it no stars,' one says. Another describes it as 'self- indulgent' and 'self-promoting'. A third adds: 'While noble in thought, it was lacking depth, lacking focus and, in fact, I found it insulting.' As for what Gorbachev, Shell or the Pet Shop Boys make of it, we'll probably never know.

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