On April 8, 2016, I had the honor to meet Prof. Edward De Bono at the Customer Excellence conference in Sliema (Malta), where both of us were speaking. Yes, it was that Prof. De Bono, the father of lateral thinking and the icon of creative thinking; and author of more than 85 books.
At the end of his talk, Prof. De Bono announced his latest work Thinking to Create Value, Bonting.
I was lucky to be given an early (and autographed) copy of the work.
This post is a summary of the book, and a review of it from the perspective of TameFlow.
Since TameFlow is solidly founded on mental models and modes of thinking, I had high expectation of this book.
However, after reading it, I was left with mixed feelings. On the one side, the book truly presents interesting topics, and from an original perspective. On the other side, it appears to be a book that has been written hastily with not too much editorial attention, in particular due to an overwhelming amount of repetition; but there seems to be a reason for it.
Summary of ‘Thinking to Create Value, Bonting’
The value of repetition
De Bono immediately sets the tone in the second paragraph, candidly admitting and anticipating that the book indeed contains “a certain amount of repetition.” This turns out to be true to a fault. The work could possibly be half the size if all repetitions were removed or edited.
Prof. De Bono frames this in positive terms, claiming that redundancy has value, because life is such that we learn through repeated experience. While this might be true, the work would have benefited from better polish, editing and cross-referencing — at times the degree of repetition becomes annoying.
Hopefully this summary and review will not be as repetitive. However, since the book contains so much repetition, this summary cannot be a linear description of its content, cover to cover. Instead, it will attempt to describe and highlight the valuable concepts.
The ideas and concepts exposed make it a worthwhile read, provided you can stand the repetition.
Bonting: A new method of thinking
The purpose of the book is to present a new method of thinking that focuses squarely on creating value. It is about a process, method and habit of deliberate thinking that creates value. It is framed as a skill that can and should be taught, similarly to Prof. De Bono’s earlier modes of thinking, i.e. lateral thinking and creative thinking.
With such acquired habits and novel skills of thinking, it is possible to add value to just about anything.
This type of thinking is so novel that the author claims it warrants a new word, and actually calls it “bonting.”
The term derives from the Latin word bonus (good, honest, brave, noble, kind, pleasant, right, useful, valid, healthy) or bonum (good thing, benefit, advantage, wealth). The author also adds, not without a touch of narcissism, that the term derives from his own name, “De Bono.”
The need for the new term includes the verb “to bont,” the adjective “bonitive” and the noun “bonition.”
Bonting is not design
In the effort of describing what bonting is, Prof. De Bono writes that the nearest common term is “design,” though laments that design is mostly seen as an act of “aesthetic improvement rather than fundametal value creation.” He explains:
Design means putting together what we have in order to deliver the values we want. It does not mean creating the values we want. ‘Bonting’ includes both creating the values and finding the means to deliver such values.
Proponents of Design Thinking will probably not agree with such statements. However the statements clearly explain that bonting is about the conception of both the values as well as their means of delivery. Prof. De Bono concedes that bonting does overlap with design thinking, constructive thinking and creative thinking.
Bonting is not conventional thinking learned at school
One interesting aspect of bonting is that it is contrasted to the conventional thinking learned in school. Prof. De Bono contends that education teaches dialectic oppositions, where a viewpoint is either right or wrong; and if a viewpoint cannot be argued to be wrong it has to be accepted as correct. This severely limits the possibilities of developing further thoughts.
To represent the possibility of thinking beyond the conventional, Prof. De Bono introduces a new word, “ebne,” which stans for “excellent but not enough”. The idea is that you are not forced to accept or deny existing ideas; but simply hold them as insufficient. The existing ideas might be excellent in their own right, but we are invited to consider them as not enough. That is the core teaching of bonting. The intent is to produce practical, operational thinking, which generates new and more valuable ideas.
Prof. De Bono considers the most basic problem of humanity that culture and education are oblivious to thinking to create value, and do not cultivate value sensitivity. Value sensitivity can be trained, and become a habit of mind. Education does not teach about making things or making things happen.
Conventional education trains to recognize standard situations and to provide standard responses. Conventional education promotes critical thinking and argumentation. Conventional education is about learning and giving the right answer. Alternatives are not considered.
Conversely in bonting, seeking and exploring alternatives is essential. Ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive; and they might be transferred from one branch to another.
After the great Greek philosphers (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle), conventional thinking in Europe was mainly formed by the Church — the Church was concerned about “finding the truth” and to be able to argue with logic to prove heretics wrong. Hence the value (for the Church) of dialectic reasoning.
Bonting and focused imagination
Bonting requires “imagining forward.” Values have to be conceived of in the mind, and it is only imagination that will allow one to consider if one’s thinking might bring about real value.
When exercising imagination, focus must be on some change or action. All ensuing alternatives need to be imagined too, and explored with the mind to see what might follow. The point is not to choose the best or most probable alternative, but to explore all of them.
Since bonting actively seeks alternatives, it implies coming to terms with uncertainty and confusion, which is not convenient or comfortable. The new ideas have to pass the validation of feasibility, practicality and actuality of the envisioned value.
Attention should be given not only to the change or action that would create the new value, but also to those for whom the value is being created, and those whom might be affected (even adversely) by it. Values are very personal, and might exist only at a given point in time.
Bonting needs to take into consideration everybody who is affected, in a positive or negative way, in the present and in the future. The chain reaction of causes and effects of value creating changes can be far reaching and might have unintended consequences or unexpected side-effects. Values can be positive, but also negative. Values are contextual to the specific situation, and they depend on the people whom they affect, and their perceptions.
Value can be realized through: enhancement, removal of defects, problem solving, simplification, creation of convenience, reduction of hassle, improved design, greater durability, higher security, reduced cost, and innumerable other ways. Bonting is about delivering existing values, as well as conceiving of completely new ones.
A value must be further assessed, for instance on the basis of: strength, dependence, durability, negative reactions, co-operation, legality, custom, clarity, precision and any subsidiary values.
Types of values
Broadly speaking there are three types of values, which are color coded as follows:
- White values - removal of negatives
- Yellow values - expected values
- Gold values - extra values, beyond expectation
The removal of negatives is probably the easiest way to create value, since it is similar to familiar problem solving. Positive value creation, on the other hand, requires an act of imagination, and to conceive of the value before even trying to deliver it.
Creating freedom from a long list of negatives is a quick way to create values. Therefore, removing negatives may be even more a important source of value, because it can be done quickly.
Likewise, alteration of current values can often produce new powerful values.
It is when creating new values that a methodological discipline is needed, and this is where learning the bonting tools can pay off.
The build-up method
The build-up method for creating value starts with the current situation. Step by step, the thinking moves in the desired direction. It is of essence to have clarity about the value direction, and yet be ready to shift that direction if the train of thought brings about new insights.
Every step brings about a new situation, which can be developed even further. At each step, elements can be added or removed. Even small, apparently insignificant steps may add value. Each step maybe considered as a provocation for the next thinking step.
The step by step method actually involves a process relating to:
- Delivery and idea
Some steps of the build-up proces may need to remove faults and negatives that may have been created as side-effects of the previous steps. They can be like:
The value dream
An alternative way to conceive of value, is to start with a value dream. This is compared to the scientific method, whereby a hypothesis — which is nothing but a reasonable guess — is to be validated or denied, typically through experimentation. The value dream is like an hypothesis in the sense that it represents something concrete to begin working on.
Working with the value dream requires two search processes: one to identify where the value is to be created; and a second one to identify what concrete values are to be created. The value dream needs to be made concrete and delivered. As before, positives and negatives have to be evaluated order to decide to take action to deliver the value, or to think of another one.
The value dream as such does not have to be practical; but it can serve as a target towards which one can work. The value dream has to become an objective or a task, which can be pursued through experience, logic, data analysis or lateral thinking.
Instead of working towards the value dream, one can work backwards and consider the value dream as an ideal. By taking away from the dream, one might arrive at something realistic and practical, all the while preserving the original concepts and values.
When striving to make a value dream tangible, it is necessary to contemplate alternatives, modifications and examine if it might be addressed by existing standards and routines.
In lateral thinking, a provocation will break consolidated thought patterns and stimulate one to find new ones. When trying to resolve a value dream, a leap of fantasy — or fantastep — can serve as an anchoring point. Imagination is vital
Concepts and ideas
Imagination needs concepts, and concepts move thinking from one idea to another. Concepts are generic; ideas can be put into action. Concepts can include other concepts, and create a concept fan. The concept fan is a means to document the concepts and ideas necessary to achieve an objective.
Alternative visualizations are the concept pyramid and the concept ladder.
A concept fan contains Action concepts. Action concepts answer questions like:
- How do we do this?
- How do we bring this about?
- How do we achieve this purpose?
The thinking must be directed at making something happen, so purely descriptive or theoretical concepts are useless. Thinking as to produce action. Ideas may open up possibilities. It is necessary to work on them to make them concrete.
Lateral thinking and the patterning system of the brain
Once ordinary thinking has exhausted all options, one can resort to the tools of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking can replace the use of the concept fan, concept pyramid and concept ladder to produce change.
Lateral thinking invites to explore change first, and then examine what value it offers. Attention is first given to making a change, and then to detecting any consequential values.
For instance, the random word tool of lateral thinking might suggest unexpected ideas and produce new association of thoughts.
Lateral thinking is deliberate and formal creative thinking. It is a skill that anyone can learn. It is based on the logic of patterning systems, because the human brain organizes incoming information into patterns. Accordingly:
The definition of a pattern is simple. If at any moment your movement in one direction has a higher probability than movement in any other direction, there is a pattern.
The main idea of lateral thinking is to
[…] move laterally across patterns instead of just moving along them.
To help in this lateral movement, we can consider:
- Concept extraction: to find the concept behind something that is being done, and maybe try to improve on it
- Provocation: Consider steps that may illogical, blatantly wrong, unusable, ridiculous, nonsense, etc.. The purpose is to break the stable equilibrium of patterns.
- Escape: Remove or escape what is taken for granted.
- Exaggeration: Think of something as insanely bigger or smaller.
- Distortion: Alter a relationship or sequence of events.
- Wishful thinking: consider even ideal, impossible wishes.
- Random entry: Start from somewhere else, in order not to be constrainted by the familiar. A random entry (typically a random word from a dictionary) can provide such a different starting point, and allow to open up new ideas for consideration. The random entry should stimulate new thinking.
- Septine: a list of seven features or aspects of the situation under consideration. The purpose is to sensitise different areas of the brain, stimulating the patterning system, and preparing the brain for new ideas.
Weakness of the familiarity
The brain’s patterning system is also a source of weakness, since the dominant concepts and ideas can prevent the development of other ideas, effectively blocking us from considering or seeking new lines of thoughts.
Movement is a key mental operation
The mind performs many operations routinely, like: recognition, judgment, analysis, and synthesis. One operation stands out for the purpose of bonting: movement. It is by means of movement that one may take something from an idea and develop it further into a new idea. There might actually be a development and refinement of several ideas through movement, until we reach one that is satisfying.
Movement is essential when using provocation: it allows to make use even of stupid ideas! That’s why Prof. De Bono suggests to have a daily carnival, when outlandish and nonsensical ideas can be expressed. Even if they are not taken seriously, their expression has value: it creates new mental associations, from which real valuable ideas could be derived.
New ideas often require ‘off-track’ or ‘out of the box’ thinking; but it is not a random process. It can be cultivated through the logic of the patterning system of the brain. There are different modes of thinking, like:
- Logical deductions
- Logical inferences
Lateral thinking and bonting are just different modes of thinking, that can be developed as a skill.
A useful process is that of trying to extract values from something that has happened or changed. Often a simple assessment or judgment of the situation is sufficient. The value extracted can be build upon. Naturally this relates to value sensitivity, i.e. the ability to notice values. Unless one can notice values, then only deliberate value generation is viable.
One may extract the concept and then develop it further; or one may keep the same concept and develop new ways of delivering it.
The relevance of value perception and communication
Value design must take into account people’s perception, and therefore how value is communicated to them. Extending the reach of value communication to a broader audience contributes to building the value. The more people talk about the value, the greater it is perceived.
The counterpoint is that it makes no sense having some great value which nobody knows about and doesn’t talk about it.
Perception must always be considered: it is an often neglected but key part of thinking. Even false perceptions must also be dealt with, especially if they if they attribute intentions to values that were never there.
The importance of humor
Humor might be considered even more important than reason. The brain is an asymmetric patterning system. It is this asymmetry that allows humor to exist. Humor invariably brings about a change in perception, where the new perception is completely logical just as the original one.
Humor and creative thinking share this aspect of exploiting the asymmetric patterning system of thought that is at work in our brains. New ideas — that initially are ignored and discarded as illogical — appear completely logical in hindsight.
Perception is an integral part of thinking, and humor highlight this more than anything else. Naturally, change of perception is an important part of bonting too.
Two of the main operations of thinking are analysis and judgment. Analysis is what helps us recognize what we are facing. Judgment tells us what to do about what we are facing. When quick actions are needed, even judgment must be as rapid as possible. Yet, even before judgment can be exercised, perception and correct understanding are necessary.
[…] judgment and logic always start off with perceptions […] if perceptions are false, or even if they are just limited, then the end result will be flawed.
In broadening perspectives, it is important to seek alternative perceptions — even when the familiar ones seem perfectly valid. It is necessary to develop the habit of ‘possibility’ in contrast to the pursuit of ‘certainty’ that characterizes most thinking.
Possibilities must be seen as directions in which to look and think. Habits of thinking need to become more explorative, and be open to possibilities.
Related to judgment is the actual choice of values. The priorities of the thinker will determine the choice; and that choice may or may not be the one the person concerned would have made.
Recognition of values is highligh subjective. It is subjective for the person designing and delivering the values; but it is also subjective for the person receiving the values.
Single point focus
Different approaches to bonting have been proposed: the build-up approach, the value-dream approach and lateral thinking. One tactic to uncover even more value is to focus on a single point, and then try all three approaches. This will generate even more alternatives to consider than if one considered only one.
Review of ‘Thinking to Create Value, Bonting’ — the TameFlow Perspective
Prof. De Bono is allured by defining new words and terms. Of course, Bonting” is the foremost, but the book also defines and uses new words like:
- Ebne - excelent but not enough.
- Fantastep - a fantasy step.
- Veam - value dream.
- Po - Provocation operation.
- Septine - A list of seven features or aspects.
A part from “bonting”, the other terms seem like unnecessary in explaining the ideas presented in the book.
Bonting appears to make use of practical tools, like the concept fan, the concept pyramid and the concept ladder, which are unfortunately only described verbally. It would have been much more useful for the reader’s understanding to actually include pictures and illustrations to visualize such tools.
Bonting and the flawed view about scientific thinking
Prof. De Bono contends truth is of essence for any good thinking, because without the notion of truth, we would be in the area of magic, witchcraft and wishful thinking. This searching of truth was also the original motivation that gave rise to modern science.
Prof. De Bono — justly — laments how the conventional education system is dialectic, and all about always giving the single one correct answer contrasted to all other wrong answers. This mindset limits thinking about new alternatives.
This brings us to what is, perhaps, the most disturbing notion exposed in the book: Where Prof. De Bono gets it wrong, is when he states that the purpose of scientific thinking is about seeking The Truth.
Prof. De Bono is right in observing that any kind of thinking that has the ambition of revealing The Truth will always be in need of dogma, authority, revelation or just speculation in order to sustain what are really and simply beliefs. However that kind of truth-revealing thinking decidedly belongs to the domain — and is actually the mission of — Philosophy or Religion. It is certainly not the ambition of modern and contemporary Science.
In TameFlow we care a lot about using the Scientific Method.
Science is concerned about reliable knowledge, that can be used and reused in practice. Unlike Philosopy or Religion, Science is founded on empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is what we can personally observe and experience through our senses. And because it is founded on our senses, it is also directly dependent on our perceptions.
Science is based only on such evidence that can be experienced and perceived uniformly by others, beyond one self. It is by means of such empirical observation, experience and perception that knowledge claims can be verified and validated. Evidence perceived through empirical observations is the only kind of evidence that can be checked and rechecked by anybody. It is the only kind of evidence that can be used in the Scientific Method to arrive at conclusions and make decisions.
Science is not about the pursuit of “The Truth,” but simply a method of investigation, characterized by conceptual integrity and explanatory coherence. In fact, it is much more concerned about what can be proven false, rather than true; about validity, logical consistency and applicability of theories, rather than their truthfullness. In Science, it is expected that any theory will be superceeded and replaced by a better one, as soon as there is actual empirical supportive evidence. No scientific claim can or should be taken for granted; it can only be repeatedly validated through empirical observation.
It is integral part of scientific thinking to always doubt about what one has observed and what has been discovered; and to constantly seek for new evidence that might refute the current theories. This is a far cry from the Truth-seeking agenda of Philosophy and Religion.
It is surprising and very disappointing that these aspects are not considered by Prof. De Bono, and that instead Science is basically put in the same categories of thinking as Religion and Philosopy.
The preeminence of perception and judgment
From a TameFlow perspecitve, one of the best chapters of the book is the one about Judgment. The observation that action requires judgment, and that rapid action needs rapid judgment is at the core of TameFlow. Furthermore, the remark that judgment is based on perception is likewise central to TameFlow.
Excersice of judgment in order to decide to take action is a key skill when applying TameFlow. judgment is placed at the center of the TameFlow praxis loop, as illustrated by the following figure taken from The Essence of TameFlow:
Prof. De Bono laments that conventional thinking does not take into consideration perception. In TameFlow perception plays a key role. One key tenet of TameFlow is that in order to quickly arrive at agreeable actions, judgment and decision making must be shared by all parts of an organization. Therefore, it is necessary that anbody looking at a situation or a problem gathers the same perception or understanding about what it is really about. Unless there is such shared perception and understanding, there will be conflicting viewpoints which will slow down — or even hamper — decision making and execution.
That is why TameFlow is so intensly concerned about building and adopting shared mental models, so that observations of reality will produce the same consistent perceptions, and consequently lead to shared decision for action.
Patterning system at the heart of thinking
Another aspect of bonting is that deeply resonates with TameFlow is that it is based on patterning systems. TameFlow itself was born out of patterns, and deeply influenced by organizational design patterns. Therefore it is a comforting to read towards the end of Prof. De Bono’s book the following passage:
In any organisation, the most effective executives are those who best learn the patterns of that same organisation. These patterns include the patterns of performance, the patterns of value, market patterns etc.
In this journey of creating TameFlow, patterns have been center stage. However, the patterns at the foundation of, and used by, TameFlow are much more structured than “patterns” as understood in ordinary speech, or as patterns as likelihood of action which are Prof. De Bono’s definition. The patterns of TameFlow are Alexandrian Patterns. The whole of TameFlow Patterns, How to Design Organizations that Flow is dedicated to this topic.
To “learn the patterns of an organisation” is indeed the first step in TameFlow thinking. Yet greater performance breakthrough will develop once one starts looking across organizations and domains, to find new combinations of patterns that can generate improvements. It is this trasversal movement across patterns that creates performance innovation. This mode of thinking is entirely analogous to lateral thinking’s practicing to “move laterally across patterns instead of just moving along them.”
It is not coincidental that the opening quote in The TameFlow Chronicles 2011-2016 reads:
As a bee seeks nectar from all kinds of flowers, seek teachings everywhere. Like a deer that finds a quiet place to graze, seek seclusion to digest all that you have gathered. Like a lion, live completely free of fear. Like a madman, go beyond all limits. – Dzogchen Tantra
It is that seeking nectar from all kinds of flowers that poetically represents the moving across patterns. In the sidebar of this very The TameFlow Chronologist, we read:
The TameFlow Approach was born like an exercise in alchemy, through a creative combination of a diversity of methods, ideas, approaches, practices and field experience
Again, this represents the intent of keeping an open mind and not fix on what is known and granted, but seek across domains to find the inspiration and the association of ideas that give rise to novel approaches. TameFlow is endlessly focused on finding ways to pursue performance innovation. That is TameFlow’s way of creating value. The mindsets, attitudes and thinking habits of bonting, are indeed a driving force of TameFlow (even though these terms were not used before.)
Novelty and value of Bonting
Prof. De Bono positions bonting as an new way of thinking. But is it really? The term “bonting” is certainly new. Yet there are many parallels and overlaps with other ways to consider our thinking abilities, like:
- Joy P. Guilford’s convergent and divergent thinking
- Daniel Kanheman’s slow and fast thinking
- Carol S. Dweck’s growth and fixed mindset
- Eliyahu Goldratt’s thinking processes
What is noteworthy of Prof. De Bono’s bonting, though, is the importance attributed to making a deliberate effort of thinking to create value. It highlights how this can be a skill that can be cultivated and perfected through deliberate practice, by creating habits of thought rather than just abstract models or simple tools of thinking. It is in this effort of cultivating an attitude and a mindset that there is a high degree of resemblance with the intents of TameFlow.
“Thinking to Create Value, Bonting” will give the impression of a random collection of repeated thoughts, a work lacking of editorial polish, with no illustrations. Yet the deeper ideas and messages are noteworthy. In TameFlow we strive to build mental models that can be shared across an entire organization; in this effort the ideas of bonting and lateral thinking provide a valuable contribution.
Bonting and Lateral Thinking will definitively be added to the thinking tools of TameFlow.