Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Using Po to Generate and Restructure Ideas

by Andre · No Comments

The word “po” is a term coined by Edward de Bono in the sixties as a grammatical shorthand for a number of alternative thinking operations. The word has no magic powers in itself, but once you’re accustomed to using the operations it’s meant to invoke, their usage is less cumbersome, just as converting mathematical word problems to numerals and symbols makes reckoning easier.

Po stands for provocative operation. Provocation is used to see where an idea or statement leads to with further exploration. Traditional logic, what de Bono calls rock logic, is concerned with “what is,” using the judgment system to determine whether or not a statement is true, or to classify something into a known category. The alternative to judgement is movement, or water logic, which is concerned with “what can be,” following a provocation is see what it leads to.

Since po is an operation rather than a noun, verb, preposition or adjective, the term doesn’t lend itself to a convenient dictionary definition. But the uses for po can be explained and described without much difficulty. The first step is to become familiar with the thinking operations represented by po, then it becomes easy to use the word in context. There are three primary uses.

Denoting a provocative statement

The first use of po is at the beginning of a phase or sentence to indicate that what follows is a provocation. Whether or not the statement is true is irrelevant; it’s only used for effect, as a novel point of departure for stimulating new trains of thought that hopefully result in new ideas.

Po urinals are installed in the ladies room has no basis in fact, but if we follow a new line of thinking that follows from this statement, something practical might emerge. Conventional urinals are shaped and positioned for use when standing. But what if we had a conventional toilet seat that functioned more or less like a conventional urinal? This leads to a new type of highly water-saving toilet (modified to accommodate toilet paper). One or two clearly marked stalls in a ladies room would have traditional toilets, as needed, while the other stalls would conserve many gallons of water.

Po cell phones have no screen or keyboard seems to have no intrinsic value, at least in the judgment system. When we treat the assertion as the provocation indicated, we look for what it might lead to. Perhaps there’s an aesthetic value. We can have a cell phone whose exterior is essentially a matte black slab, like the Tycho monolith in 2001, but with an internal screen and keyboard that slides out. For some, this design would be painfully boring; for others it would be the height of minimalist elegance.

Water flows into po wells. In this case, po is positioned within the sentence, but the function is the same: to signal a provocation. The statement uses traditional lateral thinking technique of reversal. Water flows out of wells, so we reverse the direction to see what happens. This could lead to the idea of a drip irrigation system used to reconstitute unusable soil. “Well” heads would be buried several feet into the ground, slowly saturating the earth with a mineral-enriched formula that would eventually change the soil composition. Over time, you could plant crops the soil was previously unable to support.

Note that these are all ideas I hatched in real time while writing this, not model examples. They might not work at all, or they might not work in their initial form. Validating ideas is a matter of judgment. Here, in the initial phase of the creative process, movement is a more useful catalyst. Ideas can always be developed or discarded later, but the first step is getting some raw material to work with.

Importing a random word

In Seeding Ideas with Random Stimulation, I discussed another long-standing lateral thinking technique: using a random word to reorient one’s perspective on an existing problem. We posit the random word and free associate it back to the problem. Once again, there’s no intrinsic relationship between the two objects. The artificial connection is used provoke a unique stream of thought.

We use po as a conjunction between the problem or design statement and the random word (or phrase). If the task is to design a new kind of coffee cup, and the random word is “traffic light,” then the provocation would be, “Designing a new coffee cup po traffic light,” or simply “coffee cup po traffic light.”

The common method for getting a random word it to open the dictionary and pick the fifth word (an arbitrary preselection) on whatever page is opened to, or the next word, until you reach a noun. Nouns are generally preferable for random words, due to the richer array of imagery and associations they stimulate. In a pinch, you can look quickly in one direction and use the first object you see in your environment as the random word, but this isn’t recommended. When words are selected instead of randomly generated, they tend to be selected for their relevance to the problem, diminishing the provocative effect. We deliberately look for an irrelevant word.

Here are some streams of consciousness that can come from the above provocation:

  • Traffic lights . . . red, yellow and green . . . colors to indicate something . . . Put colored stickers on cups to indicate whether beverage is hot or cold
  • Flow control . . . Put an adjustable iris toward the lip of the mug, which would limit splashing and spilling when twisted
  • Lights have cylinders (cups) . . . multiple cups . . . modular design . . . cylinder that untwists into parts . . . Cylinder that breaks into two components: coffee cup and container for cream and sugar
  • Mounted on pole . . . instead of a loop for a handle . . . Cup has a solid, small-diameter cylinder along its edge where you grip it instead of putting your fingers through it

Arresting a standard reaction

This isn’t really a “creative” application, but a practical one. Here we use po as a buffer to prevent the mind from coursing down it’s normal pathways when reacting to something. Whenever something says something inflammatory, implausible, ridiculous or simply wrong, you say to yourself “po” to suspend judgment — de Bono likens this to “instant mediation.”

Po acts as a neutral exclamation, a de-patterning cue to suppress reacting and promote futher exploration. If someone calls you an idiot for suggesting a certain idea, you think “po” to bypass the impulse to verbally retaliate. It’s an especially effective substitute response for expletives that do little more than stoke futher immature behavior. With practice, po can be used to snap out of many unproductive reactions and begin looking at a situation more objectively, as if you’re a third party looking at yourself and the other person.

(Photo credit: bounder)

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Tags: Creativity · Lifestyle Design · Thinking Operations