Visualizing thinking using water logic

Water Logic is a technique developed by Edward de Bono to help visualize the way you are thinking about a particular problem or issue. Over the years I have found this to be a powerful approach to help organise my thoughts when facing complex problems.

In this article I will try to explain a little bit about how the technique is used and show some examples. I created a web application to help in drawing water logic diagrams, which are the key to the approach.

In traditional logic you lay out the relationships between items. A implies B, B implies C, and therefore A implies C. The mathematical basis for logic is very powerful and is very useful for formal problem solving.

Edward de Bono's insight is that the brain works in a similar but different way and it can be very useful to visualize this. When you think of some aspect of an issue then naturally your thinking will move on to another aspect of it after a short time. The process is continuous as your mind moves from one aspect of an issue to another. This is the natural process of the mind.

The flow of attention from one aspect of a problem to another is like the flow of water from one place to another. Water moves continuously downhill, moving around obstacles. Just so the focus of attention in the mind moves from one aspect or concept to another. The motion is thinking. Unlike water, the flow of attention can revisit earlier thoughts after a while.

In traditional logic going from A to B must be rigorous. In thinking, ie water logic, moving from A to B is not rigorous. 

  • Traditional logic: A implies B
  • Water logic: thining of A, leads me to think of B

As an example, thinking of hapiness (A) may lead me to think of my family (B). Thinking of family may lead me to think of a family vacation in France, (C). Thinking of France may lead me to think of French bread, (D). A, B, C and D are not logically connected, but they form a flow of thinking.

For many informal problems you find that there are multiple lines of thinking that can be confusing or contradictory. By looking at the flow of thinking we can lay this our in a nice diagram which often helps to see how to proceed.

The process is,

  1. Quickly write down the key aspects of the problem that come to mind. Usually this will be a small number (6-15). Assign each aspect a letter
  2. For each aspect choose one, and only one, of the other aspects most naturally follows from it in your thinking
  3. Write this down as the link
  4. Repeat this for all of the aspects
  5. Draw this out by taking the letter of first aspect, A, and writing it on a piece of paper
  6. Now draw an arrow from A and write the letter of the item A connects to at the end
  7. Continue now with B and repeat for C, D etc
  8. At some point the letter to link to will already be on the paper, in this case simply draw and arrow to this letter
  9. When you are complete you will have a picture with all the letters on the page. Each letter should have a single arrow leading from it. A letter may have 0, 1 or more arrows pointing to it.

Let's look at an example now. We will chose the problem of deciding where to go on vacation. This is an example of a good problem for water logic. There are many different aspects to the decision and the aspects can be contradictory or confusing. Emotional aspects also play heavily into this decision. Other structured approaches tend to have difficulty with emtional effects but water logic pictures incorporate them quite naturally.

Step 1 is to write down the aspects of the problem that come to mind and assign them letters. It is good to aim for 6-15 items here. It is also good to do this relatively quickly. Take a few minutes to do this. If you spend ten or more minutes then you will likely end up going into too much detail or processing or filtering your thoughts. 

Here are the items I came up with,

A - Old car is unreliable 
B - Old car needs repairs 
C - Old car will cost money in the long run 
D - New car will be high initial outlay 
E - New car will be nicer 

In step 2 we look at each item and decide which one of the other items most naturally follows in our thinking. We need to come up with one, and only one, link from each item. Sometimes this is not that easy but just try to pick the best. Remember that this is a tool to show your thinking and not to prove anything to anybody else!

I came up with the following: I use the notation "> X" to imply a link from that item.

A - Old car is unreliable > B
B - Old car needs repairs > C
C - Old car will cost money in the long run > A
D - New car will be high initial outlay > C
E - New car will be nicer > A

The next steps involve drawing this out as a diagram. You just use the letters in the diagram and use a single arrow to show a link. When you do this on paper it can take a couple of goes to get the arrangement looking neat. I'm going to cheat an use the tool on this site.


Some features to note here.

  1. The items are all connected. Sometimes you will see two or more disconnected parts to the picture. When you see disconnected parts it suggests that your issue has separate aspects that should be addressed independently. 
  2. There is a loop. There will always be a loop of some kind due to the way the technique works. Loops, particularly tight ones of two or three items, are important because they tend to represent the core issue to be resolved. In this case the loop is A > B > C > A - which represents the concern over the unreliability of the car and the cost to repair it
  3. The "new car" items are "feeders" to the main loop. They are linked to the main thinking but their flow tends to feed into the main concern loop (ABC). This implies that concerns or thoughts about the new car are less significant here than resolving the concern over reliability.

How does this help?

Well, laying out the thinking shows that the main issue here is one of reliability and the cost of that unreliability. Thoughts about buying a new car are peripheral. The central issue to be resolved is one of improving the reliability of the existing car for a reasonable cost. 

This was a made-up example and not meant to show any general answer here. There are, of course, many situations where you do want a new car! The example was meant to show how to apply the technique to a specific problem.

There wasn't any great, surprising insight as a result of this example. This is often the case. You draw out the picture, look at the loops and the feeders, see the disconnected issues and think, "well I knew that already". This is a good thing. The process still helps because it makes it clear and transparent what you are already thinking and now you can move on to looking at how to solve the various problems.