“The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein (attrib.)
We don’t live in a black-and-white world. We have unprecedented globalization but increasing protectionism; technological breakthroughs but major disruption; and increasing wealth but greater inequality. In an era of astounding complexity and paradox, we thirst for simple answers. Retreating into our social media bubbles, we separate ourselves along partisan lines. Clinging to familiar ideas provides comfort when it feels like the very ground under our feet is shifting. The problem is, reality seldom conforms so neatly and cleanly to our need to label things and put them in handy conceptual boxes, but we behave as if it does. The time is ripe for a better, more creative way to navigate the challenges that confront us individually and as a species.
In 1972 Edward de Bono published Po: Beyond Yes and No (NY: Simon & Schuster), proposing a method to check our perspectives and improve our problem-solving abilities. Po, as he called it, is a framework for thinking in a more open and flexible manner, a “de-patterning device” and a “counterbalance to the yes/no system.” Po is deliberately non-binary: generative rather than discerning, it invites possibility and eschews predetermined categories. This is critical because the wondrous human brain, wired for pattern recognition, bumps hard up against its limitations when faced with nuance and newness, which is to say constantly. If you’ve ever used a digital user interface, you know the frustration when even a broad menu of choices doesn’t address your specific situation.
Now imagine that anguish, amplified on a global scale. We need another adaptive strategy if we are to survive the next century. Or at least survive the difficult conversations necessary to get us there.
It was de Bono who also gave the world Six Thinking Hats, another deceptively simple approach. The technique was designed to focus the collective brainstorming genius of any team and to streamline analysis of the results. It’s very effective for maximizing full team input while minimizing potential for conflict, and we continue to use it in our work with clients today. Po, too, might withstand the test of time for similar reasons. It mitigates the all-too-human need to be right and, more generally, to assume that there can only be one “right” solution. Citing the “arrogance of logic,” de Bono offers Po as a “tool for change,” and an antidote to confrontation and clash, thesis and antithesis, argument and counterargument. As the default modus operandi of academia and science, the dialectic has worked well enough. Unfortunately, it fails is pretty much everywhere else; in many other domains (including our legal system, for example), a win-lose mentality can be as counterproductive as it is pervasive. (For an aptly titled and thought-provoking critique, read Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture.)
Po is the difference between the normal, vertically constrained way of thinking (i.e., bounded rationality) and lateral, imaginative thinking. It embodies four attitudes: exploration, stimulation, liberation, and anti-rigidity/anti-dogmatism. Among other applications, de Bono proposes several ways to implement it using language, such as inserting the word Po before another word or phrase, to signal that what follows is simply a possibility. It identifies any assertion as merely one way of looking at a problem or issue, without proclaiming it “truth.” Another use of Po is to introduce an “intermediate impossible,” i.e., an unlikely idea that can be used as a springboard to challenge the status quo and inspire innovative options. These verbal signposts could be helpful in our daily interactions with those who don’t inhabit our bubbles or otherwise share our viewpoints.
Po is analogous to the power of open-ended questions. These typically begin with words like “How,” “Why,” “What,” etc., inviting dialogue and curiosity. In contrast, closed questions – those beginning with “Do/did,” “Is/are,” or “Are/were,” etc. – can only be answered with “Yes” or “No,” and are intended to produce a definitive conclusion. Because they limit and control the flow of discussion, closed questions are to be avoided during contentious negotiations or difficult conversations, or else risk escalating tensions. Po is an effective way to initiate discussion, and not shut it down.
De Bono offers Po as a way to shift perception which, he notes, is really a type of thinking that we don’t generally consider as such. Instead, he says, our yes/no system of categorization essentially bypasses perception, thus committing a fundamental error: we ought to examine how we actually see and experience information before we can even begin to process it, never mind correctly discern between boxes and labels. Po creates a space to question our preconceptions.
This is important because we may be witnessing the widening of a dangerous, us-versus-them divide. It’s most obvious in political systems, including those theoretically designed for pluralities. We also see it in the broader public discourse, which appears to be driven less by a genuine desire for mutual understanding than by a growing desire to score points over the “other” side. But “being right is not enough,” de Bono warns. “Any idea, no matter how right, should be re-examined from time to time,” because circumstances change, and may demand it.
Indeed, given the current state of things it might be time to reexamine how we perceive the world, and overhaul the ways we think and talk about it. The challenges that lie ahead require a higher level of insight and problem-solving, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may not achieve it fast enough. Until then, Po may be more relevant than ever.