Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices

by Andre · 5 Comments

The APC thinking operation was coined in the 1980s by Edward de Bono as a compressed way to proactively search for and generate alternatives. The acronym, which stands for Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices, was designed as a handle for common usage — as in “Do an APC on reducing utility costs.” Each word in the acronym has slightly different connotations, but for practical purposes they’re interchangeable.

Processing and Perception

It’s common to take a problem as we’ve initially defined it and use that as the point of departure. I refer to this phase of thinking as processing. If we need to raise capital to start a business, we probably think about finding the necessary resources: banks, venture firms, angel investors and so on. The perception phase is usually taken for granted, and not thought about consciously.

If we turn our attention to how we perceive the problem, we might generate more options:

  • How to we start a business with no outside financing?
  • How do we convert our existing assets into working capital?
  • Can we build a business entirely on sweat equity?
  • Can we create some intellectual property with negligible distribution overhead?

Different problem definitions, even slightly different ones, stimulate the development of different solutions. But the initial focus is on coming up with new problems, not solutions — or rather, viewing a situation from different angles. When we do an APC, we spend some length of time (e.g. two minutes) generating as many different views as possible.


Last month, the number of RSS subscribers to Tools for Thought dropped by nearly half in a single day. Why would that be the case? Do an ACP for one minute on this, coming up with alternative reasons that might account for this drop.

The answer was that my RSS provider, Feedburner, temporarily stopped reporting feed fetches from Google Reader and iGoogle (they right metrics were restored a week later). But having the “right” answer isn’t the point of doing an APC; unsticking the mind from its default point of view is.


Thinking is often equated with problem solving, but sometimes it’s healthy to direct thinking toward innovation and improvement, designing “solutions” for which there was no real problem to begin with. Do a two-minute APC on the design of cell phone cases. As in brainstorming, the object is to generate as many ideas as possible in the given time frame.


Before spending too much time building what may turn out to be the wrong strategy, it’s worth spending some time dedicated to generating alternative strategies, without elaborating on a particular one. After having a variety to choose from, focus on implementing the best elements of one or more approaches.

A state agency notifies you that new emission regulations require you to bring your factory in compliance within 90 days, or pay an enormous fine. Do an APC on ways of dealing with this.

Further Exercises

Do an APC for two or three minutes on each of the following items. Using a timer is recommended, since it’s easy to get engrossed in the content of one problem and spend too long on it. For training purposes, the focus here is on form, running through many possibilities in a short burst of thinking. Remember to use all of the allotted time. Don’t stop just because you have a good, interesting or “right” idea.

  • A cigarette company announces that it’s settling rather than litigating a class action suit, and the following day the stock price doubles. Why?
  • Your next door neighbor constantly plays his music too loud at late hours. How can the situation be handled?
  • As a dinner guest, a boy’s best friend tells the mother that he doesn’t “eat dead animals.” So she serves him a live chicken. What might have motivated her to do this?
  • How could the post office make letter writing a more fashionable method of correspondence than email?
  • Once opened, packaging is usually discarded or recycled. What are some ways of repurposing opened packages instead?
  • Some people read the news to “know what’s going on in the world.” How else could news be viewed?
  • Your debating team has been tasked to demonstrate the ways in which astrologers are more scientific than astronomers.

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Tags: Creativity · Thinking Operations


  • August SturmNo Gravatar // May 21, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Great article!

  • FritzCatNo Gravatar // May 26, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I don’t get it. Did I overlook the descrition of the method or are there only examples???

  • Andre KibbeNo Gravatar // May 26, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    You might be right. I may have assumed the process would be obvious by induction from the examples.

    An APC basically consists of generating as many alternative definitions of a problem as possible within a short time frame. It’s hard to give a more “procedural” definition than this, hence the emphasis on examples. Take a problem, note about how you’ve define it, then deliberately define it several other ways in an effort to expand the scope of how you perceive the problem.

  • JayNo Gravatar // Jan 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    It’s kind of really cool stuff to be shown to people as it is realy good job idea

  • karenNo Gravatar // Mar 7, 2010 at 2:45 am

    There are several tools for thought. how can we know which tool we should use when facing problems?