If you’ve ever sat in meetings thinking that they could be more efficient or if you often grapple with making decisions with your partner (or as an individual) you may find Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats system useful. Here's how you can make your decision making processes more effective:
The problem with thinking
The main difficulty with thinking is that we tend to try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope and creativity all crowd in on us. Personal agendas, politics, egos and power struggles can also create further confusion. The Six Thinking Hats allow thinkers to do one thing at a time, focussing on what can be rather than on what is, and on how to design a way forward - not on who is right and who is wrong. Essentially it is a game that everyone plays to reach a defined goal. It lays arguments side by side, avoids confusion, creates focus, removes ego, saves time and is a neutral, objective way of creating a comprehensive map and making decisions easier.
Remembering the colours helps recall the function of each hat:
White is neutral and objective. The white hat is concerned with objective facts and figures.
Red suggests anger and emotions. The red hat gives the emotional view.
Black is sombre and serious. The black hat is cautious and points out weaknesses in an idea.
Yellow is sunny and positive. The yellow hat is optimistic and highlights the strengths of an idea.
Green is vegetation and fertile growth. The green hat sparks creativity and new ideas.
Blue is cool and calm. The blue hat controls the organisation of the thinking process.
Using the Six Thinking Hats
You can use the hats as symbols on their own to request a particular type of thinking. E.g. “I Think we need some green hat thinking here”. The hats can also be used in a sequence. You don't have to use all the hats and can use each as often as like. Generally, one minute per person present on each hat forces concentration and reduces waffle. The leader indicates change of hats.
White Hat Thinking
The white hat focuses on objective information. Like a computer, facts and figures are given as requested, without interpretations or opinions. There are usually two tiers: The first is where the facts are checked and proven to be accurate: “Our shop’s turnover this year was £305,413 and is down 8% on last year”. The second are believed to be true, but need to be checked. Often these are beliefs and should be framed as such: “we believe our shop’s decreased turnover was due to the ailing economy.” Facts also range from ‘always true’ to ’never true’. It’s fine for information to be included under the white hat as long as the appropriate frame is used to highlight the likelihood of the fact. White hat also defines what information is missing and needed: “we need to analyse our shop’s sales to discover likely causes of the increase”. You must also distinguish between facts and interpretation or extrapolation from facts. All facts are laid side by side on the table, even if they conflict.
Red Hat Thinking
Wearing the red hat is short and brisk and gives you and your team a chance to express feelings without the need to explain or justify them. In business we’re not supposed to allow our emotions in, but they often enter anyway - disguised as logic. The biggest challenge when using the red hat is to avoid justifying or explaining our feelings as many of us are brought up to do. Feelings can change, so it can be useful to have red hat thinking at the beginning and at the end of a meeting. Red hat is always done on an individual basis and is relatively quick. Manager: “Give me your red hat thinking on lowering prices in our shop.” Staff member: “I feel that lowering prices will not increase our sales and could damage our shop’s brand.”
Black Hat Thinking
The black hat is used for caution, for being careful. We have to consider risks, dangers, obstacles, potential problems and downsides. Overuse of black hat thinking can limit us. One of the advantages of the six hats method is that it limits the amount of time spent on cautious and critical thinking.
“I don’t like the idea of lowering prices” is red hat thinking. Black hat thinking is not emotional, it must be logical. What are the reasons why lowering prices is not liked as an idea? They must make sense. Black hat is the opposite of the yellow hat, which looks for advantages and upside. The black hat answer is: “In our past experience - which I can demonstrate with sales figures - lowering prices has not resulted in enough extra sales to offset the reduction in profits.”
Yellow Hat Thinking
Yellow hat thinking looks for the benefits. It’s about positive assessment, which can range from logical and practical to dreams and hopes. It’s harder to wear than the black hat as you have to develop ‘value sensitivity’ rather than our more natural tendency towards ‘danger sensitivity’ (black hat).
Yellow hat is concerned with the generation of proposals, the positive assessment of them and their development. It is not directly concerned with creativity (green hat). Just as black hat thinking can pinpoint a fault and leave it to green hat thinking to correct that fault, so yellow hat thinking can define an opportunity and leave it to green hat thinking to come up with some novel way of exploiting that opportunity.
Value and benefits are not always obvious, so be disciplined and thorough with using the yellow hat. Yellow hat: “Lowering retail prices at certain times of the year, like January, is believed to drive 20% extra recorded footfall into our shop and our customers say that they love a good deal.”
Green Hat Thinking
This is the energy hat. Think of growth, creativity, new ideas, options and alternatives. Under the green hat we seek to modify and improve suggested ideas: “We want to be able to lower prices and grow sales without losing profit, can you green hat this for me?” The value of the green hat is that specific time is set out for everyone to make a creative effort. Creativity isn’t just about the ‘ideas person’ at the table whilst everyone sits ready to pounce on an idea.
You may get a lot of green hat ideas and possibilities that are not possible to explore in your meeting. The red hat can then be used to pick out ‘low cost ideas’ and those that are easy to implement. Someone needs to collect green hat thoughts and the ideas then need to be taken through yellow, black and red hat consideration in order to assess what is actionable.
Blue Hat Thinking
The blue hat is the conductor of the orchestra. It manages your thinking and suggests different hats at different stages: “OK, we have some great suggestions for lowering greeting card prices in new ways, lets red hat our feelings on them.”
At the start blue hat defines (why, what, goal, direction, sequence plan) and at the end it summarises (outcome, conclusion, design, solution, next steps, etc). Having a structure to your thinking will make it more effective. This is not just about ordering the use of the other hats, the blue hat can also be used to organise other aspects of thinking like assessing priorities or listing constraints. The blue hat pulls into shape what may appear to have been a chaotic discussion. It also provides overview updates and draws together final conclusions.
The six thinking hats system simplifies thinking by dealing with one thing at a time. It also allows for a switch in thinking to prevent it becoming bogged down in one mode (usually black hat). Importantly, it does this without threatening ego.
One of the most striking things about using the six hats system is that decisions seem to make themselves. When you come to the final blue hat, the answer seems obvious to all present. Solutions also present themselves quickly, even after previously having spent hours considering the subject in question. Even when it seems that decisions can’t be made it can become clear that more information is needed, a path that considers various options is required or a red hat feeling must decide on the way forward. Whichever it is, the 6 hats method will give you a clearer idea of the lay of the land when you decide.