Creative thinking beyond the main track

2009

The brain is a system that self-organises by allowing incoming information to arrange itself into routine patterns. That is the beauty of the brain. For example, there are 39,916,800 methods of getting dressed with 11 items of clothing. If we were to spend one minute trying each way, we would have to live to be 76 years old doing nothing else all our lives.

It is because the brain forms routine patterns that we can get dressed, cross the road, get to our offices, read, write, and so on. But creative thinking needs to go beyond these routine patterns.

In a very similar way, organisations run like self-organising systems. The people working in an organisation absorb the culture and language of the organisation. They learn the principles and objectives. They become effective and efficient in driving the organisation towards those objectives.

I would call this 'main track thinking'. We can go fast and get far with main track thinking.

However, the stronger the main track thinking, the more difficult it is to open up new track thinking. We are blocked by the openness of the main track, which pulls our thinking in its direction.

There are several potential levels of idea. There are very broad concepts which you could also call directions. If your aim was to reduce traffic congestion in a city, one broad direction might be to 'seek to reduce traffic'. Another broad direction could be to 'increase travel space'.

Each broad direction could then be served by more specific concepts. For instance, 'working from home' would reduce the need to travel to work. Using buses, lightweight trains or multiple-use taxis might reduce the number of vehicles needed.

Finally, there would be the 'practical' level of idea. It would be necessary for practical ideas to deliver the concepts generated.

The ability to work at the various idea levels is important. If you go straight from the need to a practical idea, you might indeed have something of value. However, if you go first to a concept, you would then be able to generate several practical ideas.

It could be possible to go directly to a practical idea and seek to 'extract the concept' behind that idea. From this concept you could then generate further practical ideas.

Developing the habit of thinking at different levels of ideas and concepts is important, as is the ability to notice when concepts change.

There is a mathematical need for creative thinking. Information comes in over a period of time. It is organised into ideas you can use. Further information adds to these ideas. There can come a time when creative thinking can reorganise the information in a completely different way.

Consider a game for which one letter at a time is added. The task is always to form a word from the one that already exists and the new letter: a+t=at; at+c=cat; cat+o=coat; coat+r=? The last change requires a restructuring. The changes before were additions.

Ever more information does not itself produce new ideas. Ever more analysis does not itself produce new ideas. Ever more logic does not itself produce new ideas. So there is a real need to develop the skill of creative thinking.

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About The Author

Edward de Bono
Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono is a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. Over 35 years after the publication of his first book, "The Mechanism of Mind", the basic principles he outlined are now mainstream thinking in the mathematics of self-organising systems and in the design of neuro-computers. His many subsequent books have been translated into 26 languages.