Provocations are the simplest of many tools we use to stimulate lateral thinking. A provocation is the off-the-wall, out-of-the-box addition that we make to a problem or opportunity in order to break the pattern of our thinking about it. A good provocation, or provocative operation, has to be a little crazy. Dr. Edward de Bono suggests prefacing it with the word “po” to warn those analytical thinkers among us that the addition is not logical, it is deliberately lateral.

Effective provocations might be categorized as:

Escape: An escape provocation challenges the standard assumptions we make about a problem or opportunity by simply removing one of the assumptions.

       Problem: Houses must have low-E windows if they are to be energy efficient.

      Po: Houses don’t have windows.

Exaggeration: An exaggeration suggests that some measurement lies outside its normal range of values.

       Problem: I spend too much time in meetings!

      Po: You are required to spend all your time in meetings.

Reversal: A reversal is a provocation that reverses the usual sequence or direction of doing something.

       Opportunity: We deliver the product after the customer places the order.

      Po: The customer places an order after we deliver the product.

Distortion: A distortion disturbs the usual relationships between parties or actions.

       Opportunity: Sell more life insurance.

      Po: You die before you die.

      (This provocation apparently led Prudential to the concept of “life benefits”, including reverse mortgages.)

Wishful Thinking: A wishful thinking provocation is a light-hearted thought that is clearly an impossibility. Never the less, it forces us to explore laterally other possibilities.

       Opportunity: Where can we go for vacation?

       Po: I wish we owned a money tree!

Random Stimulus: Random input pushes an unrelated word or picture into the pattern of thinking. When the mind is prepared to set aside serious, logical thoughts and employ temporarily playful thinking, this transparently “silly” technique unleashes a flood of otherwise untouched associations.

       Opportunity: The market needs an effective EMF (electro-magnetic field) barrier material.

      Po: a polecat {This was the first animal that came to mind whose name started with “po”.}

These categories clearly overlap; that is of no importance. Naming the provocative operation is not important; getting it started is.

Various types of provocations are described in de Bono’s 1992 book, Serious Creativity. Most of the tools used by creative thinking consultants would fit under the provocation label.