The Diplomat … and A Little Lateral Thinking

jonathan powell lateral thinking
Photo Credit: Policy Exchange

To mark the 50th anniversary of Dr Edward de Bono’s ground-breaking thinking tool Lateral Thinking, BBC Radio 4 broadcast ‘A Little Lateral Thinking’ with Newsnight journalist Stephen Smith. De Bono’s influence reaches across from the arts to science and even into the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

In the broadcast, Stephen picked up on Tara Austin’s thoughts on the need to challenge the traditional image of the big thinker. He met with Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, the self-styled Chief Optimist, Jonathan Powell. An advocate of the work of Dr Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking was very useful when he was summoned to meet Martin McGuinness in Derry during the 1990s.

After a journey reminiscent of a cheap spy thriller, made only less heart-racing because he was negotiating with Paddy Ashdown on the phone at the same time, he arrived at the very ordinary McGuinness household. To greet him at the door was the man himself, on crutches, who made a rather unfunny joke about knee-capping. Fortunately conversation improved as they sat by the fireside for three hours, talking eating thick-cut sandwiches, provided by Mrs McGuinness.

There’s no such thing as an unsolvable conflict

“We made absolutely no breakthrough, but what it did do, was change the context.”

In typical de Bono fashion, Jonathan believes that there’s no such thing as an unsolvable conflict. Only conflicts for which we have yet to find a solution. Perhaps this is where temperament and attitude is key. Jonathan went on to add that he believes finding solutions is largely down to frame of mind.

“I appointed myself Chief Optimist in 1997. But I’m a great champion of ignorance. If Tony Blair and I had really known the history of Northern Ireland, really had any idea of how complex it was, we would never have dreamed of getting involved in the peace process.

If you think about someone like Dennis Ross … who has been involved in the Middle East peace process for 40 years. He knows every single reason why every option in the Middle East doesn’t work. Because he’s tried them over 40 years. So he looks at them and tends to say no, let’s not do that.

Whereas someone like Tony Blair and me coming in, because we are ignorant and optimistic, we were prepared to have a go at it. So, I think that if you’re really going to be engaging in Lateral Thinking, you also need to have a degree of ignorance.”

Interestingly, Architect Piers Taylor, did the same thing when he enlisted an inexperienced team to build the home of Invisible Studio with him.

A degree of ignorance is fundamental to effective thinking, creativity and facilitation tools -it give a room room to innovate. No conflict or problem is insoluble. No idea is a bad idea. Everyone has something valuable to bring to the table. Begin with ignorance and collaborate to find a workable solution.

Listen to ‘A Little Lateral Thinking’ on the BBC Radio iPlayer.

More in the ‘A Little Lateral Thinking’ series:

The Neuroscientist and … A Little Lateral Thinking

The Architect and … A Little Lateral Thinking

The Professor of Contemporary Thought and … A Little Lateral Thinking

The Peter Lewis, Ad Firm and … A Little Lateral Thinking

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