How to improve collaboration, problem-solving, innovation, and decision making.
People outlive ideas
In the past, ideas have lived longer than people. Once they were established, ideas would be changed only slowly and over several generations. Technology and science have accelerated the rate of change and now the pandemic has collapsed decades of transition into months. People will now outlive many generations of ideas. This means that we need to improve our ability to change ideas. Unfortunately the way we have been taught to think makes changing ideas very hard to do.
Establish, not change
Our whole thinking system has been designed to establish and prove the truth of ideas. We have neglected the development of tools for changing ideas. Some dominant ideas have recently been challenged by necessity, for example the idea of office work was dominant over home working. Another dominant idea was that everyone in a team has to be present at the same time. Dominant ideas get locked in and it should not need a pandemic to change them. We believe that the ideas we hold at the moment must be right, otherwise we should not hold them. The whole basis of our approach to thinking is that you progress from the right ideas you hold to a refinement of these as you get closer and closer to a perfect perception of reality. The whole YES/NO system is designed to preserve and defend ideas and to reject any attempt to change them.
Change through rejection
With the YES/NO system change can come about only if the current idea is rejected. An idea must definitely be shown to be wrong before there can be any question of changing it or even considering the need to change it. What if the idea is not wrong but becoming less relevant and less valuable? Our approach is binary – yes or no, right or wrong.
Confrontation and clash
Since change can be achieved only by rejecting the current idea, any new idea must take the form of an attack on the dominant idea. The defenders of the existing idea hasten to resist and to reject the threatening new idea because it does not fit into the dominant way of looking at things. So the dominant idea becomes strengthened in defence and the new idea becomes more forceful in attack. In the end there is a head-on clash between the new idea and the dominant idea. This process was shown beautifully when naval designers started to put forward the ‘ridiculous’ idea of ships driven by screws instead of paddle-wheels. In the end the clash between the new idea and the old idea was settled by an actual tug of war. A screw-driven ship towed a much more powerful paddle steamer backwards through the water. Rarely is the clash so neat or the outcome so decisive. Too often ideas meet head on in conflict. For practical purposes one or the other idea triumphs and the remaining idea is subdued – but neither one is changed.
This is the ‘swap’ system that has been our chief method for change. In this swap system two opposing ideas grow ever more rigid and fierce until they meet in a head-on clash.
It is only in science that the clash system of change works tolerably well. In science you reinforce the new idea with so much evidence that it triumphs over the old one. Even so the defence of the dominant idea is fierce, and many new scientific ideas have been accepted only long after they were first suggested. The clash method in science works only because the new evidence can be assessed by objective and repeatable measurement.
Outside the empirical world of science the clash method is very wasteful, because evidence is rare and incomplete so new ideas have to be looked at and assessed through the dominant ideas. Looking through these dominant ideas you can see only material which agrees with those ideas or disagrees. The material which disagrees is by definition wrong. Without objective measurement you have no choice except to judge subjectively; and you can judge subjectively only by using the only available framework for judgement – dominant ideas. Thus even an idea which is so right that it will eventually create a new framework must at first be rejected when looked at through the existing framework.
Even more difficult
Often it is impossible to change an idea that can be faulted. This is because ideas are affirmed not simply on logical grounds but also on emotional grounds. This means that the YES which affirms them is not simply the absence of NO but satisfies some emotional need. A person who is determined to believe in flying saucers travels to Norway to examine the wreck of a saucer that is said to have crashed there. If he finds nothing, then clearly the wreckage has been removed by the government in order to pretend it never happened. If he finds the wreckage of an ordinary. plane, then clearly the government has substituted the plane deliberately to mislead the investigators. So lack of actual evidence for the flying saucer is actually evidence of the conspiracy to hush it up and hence evidence for the saucers, since you do not hush up something which is not true. The idea becomes an impregnable myth which resists all evidence to destroy it.
Necessity is here now
Quite apart from its dangers and waste, the clash system of change is very, very slow. It is slow because you have to wait until ideas are obviously wrong and falling apart before you even try to look for new ideas. It is slow because you do not actually set out to look for new ideas but wait for them to happen. It is slow because the old idea sets about defending itself and rejecting the new idea for as long as possible.
The pandemic has changed this – once dominant ideas are no longer working. There is a need for new ideas to be designed, but we have not learned how to do this in a more constructive way than the battle of “I am right and you are wrong”.
We have learned the need to be right
From the earliest age there is the absolute insistence in education on the need to be right all the time. Encouragement and approval, which are emotionally necessary to young children, are used only as rewards for being right. Being wrong means being rejected by the teacher. Later on, when this.emotional support from the teacher is less important, being right is still tied directly to the child’s self-esteem. Status in the class is tied to being right. Being wrong is a matter for shame. In this way being right all the time acquires a huge importance in education, and there is this terror of being wrong. The ego is so tied to being right that later on in life you are reluctant to accept that you are ever wrong, because you are defending not the idea but your self-esteem. Since in the clash system the only way to change an idea is to admit that it is wrong, this terror of being wrong means that people have enormous difficulty in changing ideas. How many politicians or leaders admit they were wrong on some issue and change their ideas?
Tools for change
We have not been taught the tools for constructively changing ideas. Our thinking is based on the YES/NO system which is an anti-change system. Truth and untruth are pitted against each other with the usual certainty on both sides.
There are alternative thinking methods that enable individuals and groups to explore and develop ideas constructively. This is parallel thinking and is made easy to communicate and use through the Six Thinking Hats method. Teams use this to solve complex, contentious issues, effectively and quickly. It is achieved without defeating ideas or people. The approach is not about consensus and compromise but about a genuine exploration of the topic without taking sides. It is a method for creating value and encouraging people to change their own minds.
There are Lateral Thinking methods for changing perceptions and concepts. This is essential if we are to create value and solve intractable problems. No amount of excellent logic will create new ideas, as logic alone is entirely dependent on the starting point or premise that frames the situation. Lateral Thinking is a set of methods for deliberately changing our starting point and the concepts we use. What if there is more than one right answer? Lateral Thinking provides tools to escape a dominant idea without attacking it, by deliberately creating alternative concepts.
Don’t wait for the world to return to “normal”. The individuals and organisations that thrive are those that not only adapt to change but who also play an active role in designing the future.
Find out more about BRG’s de Bono training programmes, which accelerate the innovation process and help develop strategic thinking competence. Or join our upcoming public event: Virtual Collaboration with Six Thinking Hats.
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“This is an adaptation from the original which first appeared in the book ‘PO, Beyond Yes and NO’ by Edward de Bono. Republised under licence from the copyright holder deBono.com.”