Edward de Bono, who has died aged 88, was famous for introducing the world to the concept of “lateral thinking” and made a fortune by jetting around the globe to explain what it meant.
De Bono shot to fame in 1967 with his first book, The Use of Lateral Thinking, which became an instant classic. If you have a creased shirt and no iron, think laterally, he advised: take a frying pan, heat it up and cover it in brown paper.
On the back of such interesting ideas, he advised some of the world’s biggest companies on how to instil creativity in their workers.
To his followers — and by his own estimation, since he had no false modesty — de Bono was a guru who offered the key to commercial and personal success.
“Dr Edward de Bono is one of the very few people in history who can be said to have had a major impact on the way we think. In many ways he could be said to be the best known thinker internationally,” he observed in his website biography.
“He is the undisputed world leader in what may be the most important field of all in the future: constructive and creative thinking.”
His admirers praised his skill as a communicator. To his detractors, however, de Bono was a purveyor of tosh who traded on bureaucrats’ gullibility and used pseudoscientific jargon to repackage the blindingly obvious.
“De Bono has the great salesman’s gift of being fluent in the international language of gibberish,” commented Craig Brown, concluding: “If the life and career of Edward de Bono can teach us anything, it is that no one ever lost money blowing his own trumpet.”
In How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (2004), Francis Wheen dismissed de Bono’s claim to have invented lateral thinking as “like claiming to have invented poetry, or humour, or grief”.
But if he did not invent lateral thinking, de Bono could at least be said to have defined and popularised it. As opposed to “vertical thinking”, it involves reaching a solution from an unexpected or illogical angle.
De Bono had a flair for presenting seeming banalities as philosophical statements, and he liked to lard his work with technical-sounding abbreviations like OPV, EBS, APC (Other People’s Views, Examine Both Sides, and Alternatives, Possibilities and Choices).
“It has been implicit all along,” went one of his sayings, “that the mapmaking style of thinking is a two-stage process: First make the map. Second use the map.”
Along similar lines was: “No salt on food leaves the food tasting insipid. Some salt is good. More salt gives an unpleasant taste. Even more salt makes the food uneatable.”
Some of de Bono’s other insights included: “A bird is different from an aeroplane, although both fly through the air.” “With a problem, you look for a solution.” “Tennis is different from chess, although both can be two-person games with a winner and a loser.” “Soup is different from spaghetti, although both are food.”
Yet the de Bono approach was said to have achieved miracles. The Los Angeles Olympics, he claimed, were heading for the financial rocks until he taught the organisers to think laterally; sideways drilling in oil rigs would never have happened but for a seminar he gave in 1971; even the Berlin Wall might not have fallen apparently without his influence.
As well as lecturing and hosting seminars, de Bono was adept at devising commercial spin-offs from his books, such as board-games and television series.
His success brought him great wealth and his biographer listed a property portfolio that included Ireland — he owned West Skeam Island, off the coast of Cork — the Bahamas, Italy, Australia; apartments in New York, Venice and Sydney; houses in Norfolk, South Kensington and Malta, and an apartment in Albany, Piccadilly.
One of five children, Edward Francis Charles Publius de Bono was born in Malta on 19 May 1933. His father, Professor Joseph de Bono, was a prominent Maltese physician, and his Irish mother, the former Josephine O’Byrne, a former Tatler journalist. “On my mother’s side,” he said, “it’s possible I’m descended from Napoleon.”
At the age of seven, he was sent to St Edward’s College, a Maltese boarding school run along English lines. “My nickname was ‘Genius’,” de Bono recalled. “I was the only boy to have his own personal key to the chemistry laboratory.”
De Bono went to the University of Malta at only 15 to read medicine, qualifying aged 21. Later he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, to read psychology and physiology, gaining doctorates in medicine both there and at Cambridge, where he researched and lectured in the subject for 20 years.
It was medicine that unlocked the door to his career as the guru of lateral thinking by giving him the idea that human thought could be analysed as rigorously as other biological systems, such as respiration or circulation.
His The Mechanism of Mind (1969), in which he explored the neurological coding believed to form the basis of human perception, was welcomed by many critics as a persuasive and authoritative study, based on years of high-level research.
It was when he applied his theories in the more lucrative field of popular psychology that the doubters began to sharpen their stilettos.
With the boom in the self-help market, de Bono churned out scores of books on creative thinking, with such titles as Edward de Bono’s Textbook of Wisdom, The Masterthinker’s Handbook, Water Logic, How to Be More Interesting and Think! Before it’s Too Late, published in 2009, when he was 76.
Six Thinking Hats spawned other “Six” books, among them Six Action Shoes, aimed at the corporate reader and correlating styles of “action” with types of conceptual boot.
A slightly surreal instance of “water logic” cropped up in Beyond Yes and No (1972) as he inquired: “How often does someone who is using a traditional wet razor stop to consider whether instead of moving the razor it might be easier to keep the razor still and to move the head instead? In fact it is rather better. But no one does try it because there is ‘no problem to fix’.”
In Tactics: The Art and Science of Success (1985), de Bono offered “the lessons that might be learned from a number of people who would generally be regarded as ‘successful’.” These included Robert Maxwell and the American hotelier Harry Helmsley (later accused of massive tax evasion).
In The de Bono Code Book (2000) he said the world would be better if people spoke in numerical code. Instead of saying: “This relationship has been dead for a long time. We both know it. We both hang on because of the fear of the unknown”, a code-savvy individual would just say 14/4 (“fourteenfour”). “The advantages are obvious,” he said.
De Bono — who in Who’s Who listed his interests as travel, toys and thinking — never stopped thinking creatively. In a typical thought for the week posted on his website he suggested that to widen their circle of acquaintances, people should consider wearing their toothbrushes round their neck.
“Toothbrushes are normally kept in the bathroom. It would be most unusual to wear a toothbrush. So if you wear a toothbrush in a visible position this signals to all around: ‘I am willing to talk to strangers.’”
In later years he settled in Malta, where in 2004 he established the World Centre for New Thinking.
His marriage, in 1971, to Josephine Hall-White, with whom he had two sons who survive him, ended in divorce.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021
Telegraph Media Group Limited