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Lateral thinking: Edward de Bono’s PO


One of the most important weapons in the armoury of the lateral thinker is another invention of Edward de Bono’s – PO.

Challenge is of the essence of lateral thought, and the meaningless word PO is a meaningful way of challenging a statement or idea. Edward’s seminal book on lateral thinking contains the following very useful guide to the grammatical use of PO.

1) PO as interjection. Here the PO would be used by itself as a reply or even as an interruption much as NO is used. It would imply that a particular way of looking at things was being challenged. e.g. ‘The purpose of sport is to encourage that competitive spirit and the will to win’. ‘PO!’

2) PO as preface. Here PO is used before a sentence or a phrase or a word that it is meant to qualify. The qualification may take the form of a challenge or it may take the form of introducing provocative material. e.g. ‘An organisation can only function efficiently if all its members show absolute obedience’. ‘Po function efficiently’ or ‘Po clockwork with the cogwheels made of rubber’.

3) PO as juxtaposition. When two words are going to be juxtaposed for no reason at all PO is used to indicate this relationship between them. This same use of PO is involved in the introduction of a random word into a discussion e.g. ‘Travel po ink’ or ‘Po kangaroos’.

4) PO in the same positions as NO or NOT. Po can be used in any position in which NO or NOT could be used. In such a position PO would qualify exactly the same things as NO or NOT would qualify. e.g. Wednesday is po a holiday’.

In practice it is probably best to try to use PO always at the beginning of a sentence or phrase or right in front of the word to be qualified. PO does not have to be written in capital letters, but until one is well used to it, capital letters are preferable. If one is using PO and the other person does not understand its use, then this can be most simply explained as follows:

1) Challenge function. PO means you may very well be right, but let’s try and look at it in another way.

2) Provocative function. PO means I am just saying that to see what it sets off in your mind, to see whether that way of putting things can stimulate any new ideas.

3) Anti-arrogance function. PO means don’t be so arrogant, so dogmatic. Don’t have such a closed mind.

4) Overreaction. PO simply means, let’s cool it. There’s no point in getting upset about this.

There’s lots more to PO than the above, of course. It’s a very valuable weapon. It makes you stop and think – and challenge. And that’s the way to effective thinking.

From Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking, published by Penguin

Robert Heller