The “New Idea” Landscape

In today’s tough manufacturing environment there is no lack of “advice”, free and otherwise. You can’t turn around without bumping into a consultant, coach or manufacturing “mystic”. We need to be sure that we don’t let these experts dominate the idea landscape and smother the evolution of new ideas.


In 1967 Edward de Bono wrote a book called “New Think”. In it he talked about the risk of idea domination. He used the simple example of digging a hole.

“Lateral thinking is made necessary by the limitations of vertical thinking. The terms ‘lateral’ and ‘ver­tical’ were suggested by the following considerations.

It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.

Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether better holes. But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place. No matter how obvious this may seem to every dig­ger, it is still easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place. Vertical thinking is digging the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is trying again elsewhere.

The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of ef­fort that has gone into the hole without seeing some return. It is also easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do: there is a strong practical commitment to it.

It is not possible to look in a different direction by looking harder in the same direction. No sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direc­tion, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction than to ignore it. Ignor­ing something can be hard work, especially if there is not yet an alternative.

These two sorts of commitment to the half-dug hole may be regarded as commitment of invested ef­fort and commitment of direction.

By far the greatest amount of scientific effort is di­rected towards the logical enlargement of some ac­cepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one. The reason for starting a new one could be dissatisfaction with the old one, sheer ignorance of the old one, a tem­peramental need to be different, or pure whim. This hole-hopping is rare, because the process of education is usually effective and education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their betters. Education could only lead to chaos if it were to do otherwise. Adequacy and compe­tence could hardly be built on the encouragement of general dissatisfaction with the existing array of holes. Nor is education really concerned with progress: it’s purpose is to make widely available knowledge that seems to be useful. It is communicative, not creative.

 To accept the old holes and then ignore them and start again is not as easy as being unaware of them and hence free to start anywhere. Many great discov­erers like Faraday had no formal education at all, and others, like Darwin or Clerk Maxwell, had insuf­ficient to curb their originality. It is tempting to sup­pose that a capable mind that is unaware of the old approach has a good chance of evolving a new one.

A half-dug hole offers a direction in which to expend effort. Effort needs a direction and there are few more frustrating things than eager effort looking for a direc­tion. Effort must also be rewarded by some tangible re­sult; the more immediate the results, the more encouraged is the effort. Enlarging the hole that is being dug offers real progress and an assurance of fu­ture achievement. Finally, there is a comfortable, earned familiarity with a well-worked hole.

To abandon a sizable hole without any idea as to where a new hole ought to be started is unreasonable’ and demands too much of practical human nature. It is difficult enough even when a site has been chosen for the new hole.

Oilmen do not perhaps find it so difficult to appreci­ate the paradox that sitting about deciding where to dig another hole may be more useful than digging the same hole deeper. Perhaps the difference is that, for an oilman, digging costs money, but for scientists and in­dustrialists, not digging is more expensive. Without a hole, how can the mind exert its well-trained effort? The shovels of logic lie idle. There is no progress, no achievement. Today achievement has come to be ever more important to the scientist. It is by achievement alone that effort is judged, and to pursue his career a scientist must survive many such judgments.

No one is paid to sit around being capable of achievement. As there is no way of assessing such ca­pability it is necessary to pay and promote according to visible achievements. Far better to dig the wrong hole (even one that is recognized as being wrong) to an impressive depth than to sit around wondering where to start digging. It may well be that the per­son who is sitting around and thinking is far closer to digging a much more valuable hole, but how can such a thing be judged until the hole is actually started and the achievement becomes visible?

In the long run it may be far more useful to have some people about to achieve the right thing than have everyone actually achieving things of lesser worth; but there are few who are willing to invest in mere possibility. In the present system who can afford to think? Who can afford the non-progress of abortive thoughts?

An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else except a fellow expert, with whom it is necessary to disagree in order that there can be as many experts as there are dis­agreements, for among the experts a hierarchy can then emerge. An expert may even have contributed to­wards the shape of the hole. For such reasons experts are not usually the fIrst to leap out of the hole that ac­cords them their expert status, to start digging else­where. It would be even more unthinkable for an expert to climb out of the hole only to sit around and consider where to start another hole. Nor are experts eager to express their expertise as dissatisfaction with the hole, for dissatisfaction is too easily expressed, and often more forcibly, by many others who have not earned the right to be dissatisfied. So experts are usu­ally to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes, often so deep that it hardly seems worth getting out of them to look around.”

 Strike a chord?

Barry Stuart