Of all the different management, leadership, communication, innovation, and thinking tools, tips and techniques that I’ve learned over the years, nothing has affected me more, or has had more practical applications, than Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” model.
De Bono, the guru of “thinking about thinking,” originated this framework that I now use, either consciously or unconsciously, literally every single day. It’s one of the best examples of how we can use visual and metaphorical thinking and communicating to solve real-world challenges.
The model in brief: There are six metaphorical “hats” — each a different color. Each hat represents a different type of thinking. By metaphorically taking off or putting on a different hat, you can intentionally and strategically switch to a different type of thinking.
Here are the six hat colors, and a brief overview of what type of thinking each represents:
1. White Hat: Neutral; objective; facts; data; information; objectivity
2. Red Hat: Emotion; gut feeling; intuition; passion; subjectivity
3. Black Hat: Cons; critical; caution; risks; costs; weaknesses; disadvantages
4. Yellow Hat: Pros; optimism; benefits; strengths; advantages
5. Green Hat: Creativity; innovation; brainstorming; new ideas; possibilities
6. Blue Hat: Process; structure; thinking about thinking; next steps
The Six Thinking Hats method can be applied in many different types of situations, for example:
- In a meeting: as a formalized, structured process (e.g., a group brainstorming or strategy session)
- In a one-on-one discussion: as a common language that will encourage dialogue and minimize conflict
- In your own mind: as a way to frame your own thinking, separate fact from emotion, and make better decisions
When used in a group, it enables what de Bono calls “parallel thinking,” which occurs when all members metaphorically “wear” the same color hat at the same time. This dramatically improves communication, minimizes conflict, and fosters innovation.
How do the Six Thinking Hats do this? The best way to understand it is through a real-life illustration:
Say you’re in a meeting, trying to reach a decision. Instead of the normal chaos and conflict caused by endless debate, cross-talk, shooting down ideas, etc., what if we were able to say:
“Let’s temporarily put aside our Red Hats (our emotional reactions), our Black (negative/critical) and Yellow (positive/supportive) opinions, and all put on our White Hats to first objectively identify the objective facts and relevant data, before we start jumping to possible solutions (Green Hat) and proposing next steps (Blue Hat).”
Once agreed, from there the group can efficiently, and with minimal conflict and debate, run the situation through this simple and logically sequenced series of questions:
1. White Hat: What are the facts about the situation at hand?
2. Red Hat: How do people feel, emotionally, about the situation?
3. Black Hat: What’s not working — and why?
4. Yellow Hat: What is working – and why?
5. Green Hat: What’s new (ideas, possibilities)?
6. Blue Hat: What’s next (where do we go from here)?
(Note: You don’t necessarily always have to use the hats in this exact sequence; but this is an example of a very common and effective approach.)
By enabling parallel thinking — by having everyone wear the the same color hat at the same time (and headed together in the same direction) — you will see how much more orderly your meetings will be, and how much more quickly you can reach decisions and get things done!
And if you assign one person in the meeting to be the Blue Hat leader, that person (regardless of organizational role or rank) will serve to make sure that things run smoothly, stay on track, and that everyone plays by the rules.
Using this methodology, my company has successfully conducted numerous executive-level strategy meetings, facilitated cross-functional team-building and brainstorming sessions, and helped hundreds of individuals maximize the effectiveness of their own decision-making skills, along with their ability to more effectively conceive and communicate ideas.
Here’s a question that may hit close to home: how might you use the Six Thinking Hats in your job search?
Let’s say that you were presented with a potential job opportunity. What kind of question might each Thinking Hat pose to help you make the best possible decision?
1. White Hat: What are the objective facts about the position and the company (title, salary, benefits, location, industry, work environment, department, new manager, etc.)?
2. Red Hat: How do I feel about this opportunity; what is my gut telling me (am I excited, nervous, hesitant, concerned, etc)?
3. Black Hat: What don‘t I like about it, what’s bad about it — and why (i.e., what are the negatives or concerns associated with the White Hat facts and my Red Hat feelings)?
4. Yellow Hat: What do I like about it, what’s good about it – and why (what are the positives associated with the White Hat facts and my Red Hat feelings)?
5. Green Hat: What are the various options, alternatives, choices available to me (i.e., what’s going through my mind in terms of what-ifs, and out-of-the-box possibilities; what does it look like if I visualize actually taking this job)?
6. Blue Hat: What are the next steps; where do I go from here (when do I have to make a decision by, what do I have to do next, what actions should I take)?
Although this is just one simple and common example, you can easily see how using the Six Thinking Hats to frame your thinking can go a long way toward maximizing your effectiveness – and enhancing your confidence – when it comes to making any decision.
It is important to note, however, that while it takes just a few minutes to learn this seemingly simple model, it takes time, training, and much practice to truly master it.
For more on de Bono and his Six Thinking Hats method, there are tons of online resources, including a number of good (and some other really bad) YouTube videos available, including a three-minute clip of de Bono himself talking about it. I also highly recommend the Six Thinking Hats book itself — it might be the best $10 you spend this week. And for any specific questions, you can always feel free to contact me directly anytime.