Edward de Bono’s work has had a significant effect on my thinking since the late 1960s. His early books, such as The Mechanism of Mind, Lateral Thinking, Lateral Thinking for Management, and Po – Beyond Yes and No, were particularly influential; although there were many other nuggets to mine from later volumes. However, I don’t want to talk here about the use that I have made of these insights, tools and techniques in terms of creative thinking per se. Rather, I want to share some of the ways in which this thinking has helped to shape my views on my current passion - the dynamics of organizations and the nature of organizational change.
Lateral reinforcement for emerging theories on organizational dynamics
In my book, Informal Coalitions, I describe organizations as dynamic networks of ongoing, self-organizing conversations. In formulating this view during the 1990s, my thinking was stimulated both by de Bono’s early writings on the mechanism of mind and, at the same time, by the emerging theories on the application of the complexity sciences to organizations. De Bono’s work is ordinarily linked neither with complexity theory nor the study of organizational dynamics. However, the ideas set out below, amongst those that he first introduced some forty years ago, offer some ‘lateral’ reinforcement for these emerging views.
Given de Bono’s advocacy of simplicity as a design principle, this linking of his work with complexity might appear provocative (a good de Bono word). Maybe so. But the more that I have developed my thinking on the underlying dynamics of organizations, the more parallels that seem to exist between these and de Bono’s many writings on the brain and lateral thinking. And so, besides offering direct insights into the mechanism of the internal, ‘silent conversation of mind’, I see de Bono’s ideas as also providing an analogue for the ‘external’, social dynamics of organizations. For me, these two perspectives provide a sort of ‘triangulation’ around the phenomena I see taking place in organizations every day.
Self-organization and the patterning process
First, de Bono describes the mind as a self-organizing, patterning system. He argues that the mind does not organize information but instead provides an environment for incoming information to organize itself into patterns. He goes on to explain that these patterns are self-reinforcing and self-replicating. It is precisely because the mind is a dynamic, pattern-creating and pattern-using process that we can operate at all. Without this self-organizing and self-replicating behaviour, we would not be able to function – having to learn things afresh each time that we encountered them. However, this same patterning nature of the brain is also self-limiting, in that thinking can become stuck in particular patterns. De Bono saw this as a necessary flaw in the brain’s mode of operation (and self-organizing systems in general), which spurred him to invent the concept and practice of lateral thinking.
Organizations similarly become ‘locked into’ their own, socially constructed patterns of cultural assumptions and the characteristic patterns of thinking and behaviour that flow from them. These can help to reduce internal complexity and uncertainty by ‘codifying’ norms of behaviour, expectations and so on. As de Bono would predict, though, the patterns that help people to create a sense of meaning, and that allow them to negotiate their way through the organizational world in an ‘orderly’ way, can also constrain their ability to act in other ways. Established ways of thinking and acting tend to trap individuals - alone and collectively - within their own, socially constructed worlds and prevent them from noticing and engaging with other emerging possibilities.
Continuity and change
De Bono argues that this natural patterning process of the mind is one of reinforcement and continuity – the more a pattern is triggered by incoming information, the more likely it is to be triggered in the future. Continuity, then, arises from this self-replicating and self-reinforcing tendency. However, because the patterning process is asymmetrical, he also acknowledges the capacity for novelty to occur from this same process. Novelty is about pattern breaking rather than pattern reinforcing. And de Bono argues that this can arise in a variety of natural ways, such as through confusion and misunderstanding, mistake, chance, emotion and humour. It can also result from the exchange of views during everyday conversation, especially where there is disagreement. The outcome of this difference and contention might, of course, be the dominance of one person’s viewpoint rather than the joint exploration that de Bono would advocate and seek to facilitate.
Where novelty arises through any of these processes, de Bono sees this as reflecting a sudden “insight switchover” to a different pattern around which self-organization continues to occur. Because this process is also self-maximizing, the new pattern tends to take over completely. De Bono advocates the use of deliberate stimulation (such as lateral thinking techniques) to facilitate this process because, although novelty will occur naturally, it is likely to be haphazard and inefficient in terms of a specifically desired outcome (e.g. the solving of a specific problem or the development of an innovative idea in a specific area of focus).
In terms of my perspective of organizational dynamics, outcomes emerge from the everyday interactions of people, both formal and informal. During sense-making conversations with themselves (i.e. thinking!) and with others, individuals perceive, interpret and evaluate what’s going on and decide how they are going to act. Overall outcomes then emerge, in a self-organizing way, from the organization-wide interplay of these myriad local decisions and actions. The more that people make sense of things in a particular way, the more likely they are to continue to make sense of things that way, as they move forward together into the future. This patterning process and its tendency to cause people, imperceptibly, to think and act in particular ways, is what organizational culture is all about – and why it’s so difficult to change. At the same time, the local conversations contain the possibility for new outcomes to emerge (again, through such natural dynamics as the coming together of diverse perspectives, misunderstanding and confusion, or deliberate attempts at reframing).
Challenging linear cause and effect
Complexity theorists also challenge conventional wisdom in relation to the notion of linear cause and effect, which provides the basis for much established management thinking. They argue instead that the non-linear dynamics of complex processes mean that the links between cause and effect become distant and impossible to detect. De Bono similarly argues that, in relation to lateral thinking, linear cause and effect has limited meaning and that it is important instead to look for patterns, and for points of change which can trigger off new patterns.
The criticality of initial conditions
The critical importance of initial conditions to the outcomes that emerge is another central tenet of non-linear dynamics and the complexity sciences. Small and seemingly inconsequential changes in these conditions can lead to significantly different outcomes. This phenomenon is popularly referred to as “the butterfly effect”. This posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might cause minor atmospheric changes that ultimately influence weather conditions thousands of miles away.
In discussing the patterning process of the brain, de Bono similarly points out that a small change, such as simply altering the entry point to a pattern, can lead to a totally different outcome. The crucial effect that the sequence and timing of arrival of pieces of ‘information’ has on the outcome is therefore vitally important to the patterning process that takes place and the patterns that emerge.
In the context of organizational conversations and interactions, this similar dynamic occurs. The sequence of gestures and responses pattern the conversational process and determine its outcome, whether in terms of organization-wide designs (strategies, structures etc), local actions, or patterns of underlying assumptions. Small changes can lead to significantly different outcomes. These conversational exchanges therefore shape – and are simultaneously shaped by – the outcomes that emerge.
A critical dynamic of organization from a complex social process perspective is polarization. As argued by one of the main proponents of this view, Ralph Stacey, the act of naming or categorizing an experience places it into one category rather than another. This identifies and accentuates the similarities that exist with other experiences placed in that same category and, at the same time, emphasizes the differences from experiences that are categorized differently. In this way, experience is polarized into similarity within categories and difference between them. As a result, the paradox of simultaneous similarity and difference within and between categories is lost sight of. This is a key dynamic of organizations and is part of the explanation as to why politics and power relations are fundamental to the way that organizations operate.
In much the same way, de Bono states that the mind has a marked tendency towards polarization. Even though the choice between two competing patterns may be very fine, he argues that one of them will be chosen and the other one completely ignored. Once such divisions are formed they become self-perpetuating and grow further apart. This results in a tendency to move to one extreme or the other, rather than maintaining a balance between them.
Language and conversation
Viewing organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations inevitably highlights the important role that language plays in the overall process. In particular it emphasizes the self-organizing, patterning process that characterizes organizational conversations and interactions. This patterning takes place between people, during their (external) conversations, and simultaneously within people during their thinking (or internal, silent conversations).
The emerging patterns are shaped by – and themselves shape – the ongoing, self-organizing conversations that comprise everyday organizational behaviour. As the patterns and content of the conversations change, so does the organization. However, conversations can become stuck in repetitive patterns. So the challenge for a leader is to try, as an active and involved participant, to stimulate more fluid, spontaneous conversations. These open up the possibility, but not the guarantee, that more useful and creative outcomes will emerge.
De Bono expresses a similar interest in the patterning effects of language. As he points out, language only works because it provides symbols (words, intonation etc) and accompanying feelings that trigger the patterning process and tend to channel it in particular directions (based on the immediate context, what has gone before and activity in the moment). This tendency for the emerging patterns to follow established pathways provides the fundamental rationale for lateral thinking (and his introduction of the word po), as a way of trying to ‘cut across’ these and stimulate new responses. The aim is to try to escape from what de Bono originally called the "concept prisons" and "cliché units" (i.e. stuck patterns), that inevitably result from this patterning nature of the brain.
Random stimulation and pattern breaking
De Bono emphasizes the importance of random stimulation as a means of breaking out of established ways of thinking. I see this as analogous to the importance that Stacey places in deviance and eccentricity as sources of creative emergence in organizations. It also challenges many of the ‘common sense’ theories of organizational management, which see so-called "strong" (i.e. aligned) cultures, rational analysis, clarity and conformity as the touchstones of organizational excellence. De Bono’s notion of random stimulation makes use of any input whatsoever - no matter how unrelated it appears to be. In some respects, the more diverse and seemingly unrelated it is the better. And no input is rejected as useless. From this perspective, the more irrelevant an input appears initially, the more useful it might turn out to be.
One of the main ‘tools’ of lateral thinking is provocation, in which established patterns of thinking and the assumptions that underlie them are intentionally challenged in one way or another. The aim is to stimulate change in the patterning process. The ‘confusion’ and ‘misunderstanding’ that arises from this intervention creates the circumstances in which pattern switching becomes more likely. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, such things as confusion, misunderstanding and diversity are important sources of novelty in organizational conversations. By ‘randomly stimulating’ people’s set ways of thinking and acting, these can trigger the re-patterning of assumptions and shift the behaviours that flow from these.
No objective observer
One of the major challenges that the radical perspective on organizational complexity poses to established management thinking is the recognition that there is no outside agent (the manager) objectively observing what is going on and controlling the activities of others from an external vantage point. Some ‘mainstream’ advocates of a complexity approach see it as providing a new set of prescriptions for managers to use to control their organizations. Principal amongst these are those who see organizations as "living systems" and/or those who adopt a Complex Adaptive System view of organizational dynamics. Some of these call on managers to apply a set of “simple rules” to facilitate self-management. Others seek to draw lessons directly from Chaos Theory; advocating that managers should work to keep their organizations "close to the edge of chaos".
These prescriptive approaches perpetuate the myth that managers can somehow stand outside the action and control it from a detached viewpoint. In human organizations, there is nobody outside the process of interaction. Managers are unavoidably involved in the give-and-take of local conversational exchanges through which outcomes emerge – even in their absence! At the same time, they cannot control these outcomes. Although managers can act with intent in terms of their own contribution to the dynamic network of interactions, they cannot be certain what outcomes will actually emerge.
Here again, de Bono’s early writings on the brain provide some ‘lateral reinforcement’ for this position. In describing "the mechanism of mind", he argues that there is not a separate agent at work, picking ‘information’ out of the environment, storing it on the brain’s ‘memory-surface’ and then picking it off the surface to manipulate it. Instead, stimuli (such as those arising in conversation with others) organize themselves into patterns without the involvement of any other agency. What emerges from this process depends on the ‘in-the-moment’ coming together of these particular stimuli and the patterning that has gone before. The latter will tend to channel perceptions and interpretations down well-trodden ‘pathways of the mind’ whilst retaining the capacity for novelty to emerge.
Not an optional way of managing
Finally, speaking of organizations as complex social processes does not offer an optional way of managing them. Too often we hear management writers and commentators advocating the principles of complexity as an alternative way of managing organizations. Typically, they position it as a more enlightened view of leadership - in contrast, say, to command and control. What they overlook is that the unalloyed ‘commanders and controllers’ are themselves active participants in the self-organizing processes of interaction within their organizations and beyond. Their inputs to these interactions may well be conditioned by their command-and-control mindset and behaviours, but the outcomes will be no less subject to the principles and processes of emergence, self-organization and co-creation than if they were unconditional disciples of complexity thinking.
Similarly, de Bono’s view of the mechanism of mind does not offer an optional way of ‘managing’ the thinking process. It happens without any deliberate intervention. The self-organizing behaviour of the brain shows how stimuli organize themselves into patterns of thinking and acting, which enable us to navigate our way through life. And this also explains why pattern shifting is ordinarily (and necessarily) difficult to achieve.
It’s important to recognize here that de Bono is not using the word "pattern" to suggest that fixed, repeatable images are created and somehow stored in the brain for later ‘downloading’. Instead, the patterning process creates an expectancy that particular stimuli will tend to channel thinking down certain routes rather than others. As a consequence of these natural dynamics:
• memories are (re)-created (re-membered each time, as Stacey would say);
• sense making is facilitated; and
• familiar responses are triggered.
At the same time, the asymmetrical nature of the emergent patterns means that the potential always exists for radical, spontaneous change to arise naturally (even if not with a high probability).
This simultaneous potential for continuity and change to emerge from the everyday process of conversational interaction is a central pillar of the complex social process view of organizational dynamics, as embodied in Informal Coalitions.
Today, de Bono is thought of primarily as an author and teacher of creative thinking techniques. However, as suggested above, the principles of ‘brain dynamics’ that underpin his writing and teaching provide some equally important insights into the dynamics of organizations, if managers and organizational specialists are prepared to look for them.
© 2009 Chris Rodgers