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How can you die before you die?

Moving from a product to a customer-centred culture demands innovative, flexible thinking. So, where do you start? Edward de Bono tells the story of Ron Barbaro of Prudential Insurance, Canada, to illustrate how to do it.

Barbaro was at the hospital bedside of a terminally ill friend, whose illness was long and drawn out. Barbaro was frustrated that his industry had no product that was of relevance to his friend’s situation; that could ease his life before death, rather than pay up after, as existing life assurance did then.

Barbaro left the hospital thinking the ridiculous: “How can you die before you die?” If he had lacked the mental flexibility to come up with such an apparently absurd question, he would not have come up with the answer: Living Needs Benefit, a new product that pays out 75% of a life policy while the policy holder is still alive.

At a stroke, Barbaro had invented a new product that made life assurance much more attractive for single people, a category of customer (often affluent) who previously had little use for it. Now, almost every life assurance company around the world has a similar category of product.

De Bono defines this kind of thinking – beginning with a thought far removed from any existing product and then forcing the brain to work out a pathway from there to a workable product – as a ‘provocation’, rather like the grit in an oyster that encourages a pearl to form. Yes, I know this is old stuff, but it’s still not practised enough.

“The brain is astute at building new pathways to connect different areas, and this kind of exercise helps develop that ability,” he says. It worked for Barbaro. He became President of Prudential Canada.

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