Put on Your Thinking Hats

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One of the saddest events I have had to witness with management teams is watching potentially good ideas die on the table without ever being explored.  Sometimes it’s because someone claims, “we’ve done this before,” even though it’s a different time and situation.  Or maybe it’s the pessimistic devil’s advocate who chimes in with all the “can’t” reasons.  Whatever the cause, before even an inkling of true, objective analysis occurs, the idea is lost.  Imagine if we could ensure that never happened.

Over 20 years ago, Edward de Bono (1985) introduced an approach to helping people look at ideas through different lenses, which he coined as the ‘Six Thinking Hats.’  Bono proposed that every idea be deliberately discussed from six different perspectives.  By doing so, he believed every idea would be viewed from all potential perspectives before being adopted or thrown out.  To help groups appreciate the process he assigned a colored hat to each perspective.  Let’s take a look at the six hats and how you can use them to better appreciate ideas in your organization.

Ed Bono’s Six Thinking Hats
Yellow = Logical/Optimist       
Black = Logical/Negative
Green = Creative/Ideas          
Blue = Organizer/Processor
White = Neutral/Facts            
Red = Emotional/Feeling

Each hat is representative of a different perspective that should come to the table when brainstorming ideas.  Perspective include the optimist (Yellow), the doubting Thomas or pessimist (Black), the “just the facts” person (White) and the gut oriented emotional person (Red), and finally the ‘sky’s the limit’ creative (Green) and the grounded and process oriented synthesizer (Blue).  Note that each hat has an opposite or a counter balancing perspective.  This counteracts the norm of group thinking where participants may feel pulled a certain way by including all perspectives and their opposites.

So here’s how you can use the hats to make idea consideration or problem solving more effective.  First, begin with stating the idea or problem to be discussed.  This may sound like an elementary step, but you’d be surprised how frequently a poorly defined problem statement is a key reason teams struggle to find solid solutions.  Take the time to clearly define the problem before you begin.

With the problem defined, walk through discussing the facts associated with it (White Hat).  What do you know for sure?  What do you assume, but recognize still needs to be explored?  What don’t you know?  Now, the group can focus attention on potential ways to solve it (Green Hat).  After reviewing the virtues of the potential solutions, the group creates two lists: advantages (Yellow Hat) and disadvantages (Black Hat).  This should generate some thought provoking considerations and lead perfectly into the next step, which involves the group assessing how their gut feels about the alternate ideas (Red Hat).  Finally, the group must sum up and end (Blue Hat).

By using this process in problem solving, the group gets to ensure that every perspective is thoroughly explored and heard.  It is not absolutely necessary to wear different colored hats to accomplish this exercise, but having even simple construction paper cutouts or colored paper corresponding to the hats for each stage of the process can help people stay focused on what perspective they are working in and make it easier to indicate and redirect when someone has taken a different perspective than the group is working in (has put on a different hat).

Keeping an open mind and thoroughly exploring all angles when problem solving is essential to a management team’s success.  For some, this comes naturally but most of us can use a little help to stay on track.  De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is one simple way to facilitate structured and balanced problem solving and immediately create a conscious awareness within the group.  On a lighter note, it also provides an interesting explanation for hat head.  Give it a try and see if it works for your team.  Good luck.

Reference: de Bono, E. (1985). Six thinking hats. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.