Six Thinking Hats
Looking at a Decision From All Points of View
‘Six Thinking Hats’ is a powerful technique that helps you look at important decisions from a number of different perspectives. It helps you make better decisions by forcing you to move outside your habitual ways of thinking. As such, it helps you understand the full complexity of the decision, and spot issues and opportunities to which you might otherwise be blind.
This tool was created by Edward de Bono in his book ‘6 Thinking Hats‘.
Many successful people think from a very rational, positive viewpoint. This is part of the reason that they are successful. Often, though, they may fail to look at a problem from an emotional, intuitive, creative or negative viewpoint. This can mean that they underestimate resistance to plans, fail to make creative leaps and do not make essential contingency plans.
Similarly, pessimists may be excessively defensive, and more emotional people may fail to look at decisions calmly and rationally.
If you look at a problem with the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ technique, then you will solve it using all approaches. Your decisions and plans will mix ambition, skill in execution, sensitivity, creativity and good contingency planning.
How to Use the Tool:
You can use the Six Thinking Hats technique in meetings or on your own. In meetings it has the benefit of blocking the confrontations that happen when people with different thinking styles discuss the same problem.
Each ‘Thinking Hat’ is a different style of thinking. These are explained below:
- White Hat:
With this thinking hat you focus on the data available. Look at the information you have, and see what you can learn from it. Look for gaps in your knowledge, and either try to fill them or take account of them.This is where you analyze past trends, and try to extrapolate from historical data.
- Red Hat:
‘Wearing’ the red hat, you look at problems using intuition, gut reaction, and emotion. Also try to think how other people will react emotionally. Try to understand the responses of people who do not fully know your reasoning.
- Black Hat:
Using black hat thinking, look at all the bad points of the decision. Look at it cautiously and defensively. Try to see why it might not work. This is important because it highlights the weak points in a plan. It allows you to eliminate them, alter them, or prepare contingency plans to counter them.Black Hat thinking helps to make your plans ‘tougher’ and more resilient. It can also help you to spot fatal flaws and risks before you embark on a course of action. Black Hat thinking is one of the real benefits of this technique, as many successful people get so used to thinking positively that often they cannot see problems in advance. This leaves them under-prepared for difficulties.
- Yellow Hat:
The yellow hat helps you to think positively. It is the optimistic viewpoint that helps you to see all the benefits of the decision and the value in it. Yellow Hat thinking helps you to keep going when everything looks gloomy and difficult.
- Green Hat:
The Green Hat stands for creativity. This is where you can develop creative solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas. A whole range of creativity tools can help you here.
- Blue Hat:
The Blue Hat stands for process control. This is the hat worn by people chairing meetings. When running into difficulties because ideas are running dry, they may direct activity into Green Hat thinking. When contingency plans are needed, they will ask for Black Hat thinking, etc.
A variant of this technique is to look at problems from the point of view of different professionals (e.g. doctors, architects, sales directors, etc.) or different customers.
Download our free Six Thinking Hats worksheet, and use it next time you are preparing for a meeting where a decision or course of action will be discussed.
The directors of a property company are looking at whether they should construct a new office building. The economy is doing well, and the amount of vacant office space is reducing sharply. As part of their decision they decide to use the 6 Thinking Hats technique during a planning meeting.
Looking at the problem with the White Hat, they analyze the data they have. They examine the trend in vacant office space, which shows a sharp reduction. They anticipate that by the time the office block would be completed, that there will be a severe shortage of office space. Current government projections show steady economic growth for at least the construction period.
With Red Hat thinking, some of the directors think the proposed building looks quite ugly. While it would be highly cost-effective, they worry that people would not like to work in it.
When they think with the Black Hat, they worry that government projections may be wrong. The economy may be about to enter a ‘cyclical downturn’, in which case the office building may be empty for a long time.
If the building is not attractive, then companies will choose to work in another better-looking building at the same rent.
With the Yellow Hat, however, if the economy holds up and their projections are correct, the company stands to make a great deal of money.
If they are lucky, maybe they could sell the building before the next downturn, or rent to tenants on long-term leases that will last through any recession.
With Green Hat thinking they consider whether they should change the design to make the building more pleasant. Perhaps they could build prestige offices that people would want to rent in any economic climate. Alternatively, maybe they should invest the money in the short term to buy up property at a low cost when a recession comes.
The Blue Hat has been used by the meeting’s Chair to move between the different thinking styles. He or she may have needed to keep other members of the team from switching styles, or from criticizing other peoples’ points.
It is well worth reading Edward de Bono’s book 6 Thinking Hats for more information on this technique.
Six Thinking Hats is a good technique for looking at the effects of a decision from a number of different points of view.
It allows necessary emotion and skepticism to be brought into what would otherwise be purely rational decisions. It opens up the opportunity for creativity within Decision Making. The technique also helps, for example, persistently pessimistic people to be positive and creative.
Plans developed using the ‘6 Thinking Hats’ technique will be sounder and more resilient than would otherwise be the case. It may also help you to avoid public relations mistakes, and spot good reasons not to follow a course of action before you have committed to it.
The Need to Change Thinking Behavior
We have developed many excellent thinking tools for argument and analysis. Our information technology methods are constantly improving. But we have developed few tools to deal with our ordinary everyday thinking-the sort of thinking we do in conversations and meetings.
In fact, our traditional thinking methods have not changed for centuries. While these methods were powerful in dealing with a relatively stable world (where ideas and concepts tended to live longer than people), they are no longer adequate to deal with the rapidly changing world of today where new concepts and ideas are urgently needed.
The fall of the Roman Empire in Europe was followed by the Dark Ages. The so-called barbarian hordes swept across what had been the civilizations of Rome and Greece.
Scholarship, reading, writing, and thinking were only preserved in the great monasteries and abbeys of the Church. Naturally, the thinking that took place in the monasteries and abbeys was concerned with theology and with preserving the doctrine and dogma of the Christian faith.
Then came the Renaissance. The Renaissance was brought about by the discovery of the classic thinking methods of the ancient Greek philosophers. This “new thinking” provided a breath of fresh air. Humanity was given a more central role in the universe. Thinkers were allowed to use reason to work things out. Logic was now allowed.
It is hardly surprising that this new thinking was eagerly embraced by the “humanists” or non-church thinkers because it gave them a framework for thinking and also for challenging the church. At the same time, this new thinking was embraced by church scholars such as Thomas Aquinas of Naples, who fashioned Aristotelian logic into a powerful, argumentative way of proving heretics wrong. So the two main thinking groups in Western culture adopted, with eagerness, this classic Greek thinking.
Argument and Critical Thinking
To this day, Western culture depends on this type of thinking. In family arguments, in business discussions, in the law courts, and in governing assemblies, we use the thinking system of the Greeks, based on argument and critical thinking.
I sometimes refer to prominent philosophers of this day as the “gang of three.” Who were the famous Greek gang of three, and how did they form the thinking habits of Western culture?
The Gang of Three Socrates (469-399 B.C.)
Socrates was trained as a “sophist.” Sophists were people who played with words and showed how careful choice of words could lead you to almost any conclusion you wanted. Socrates was interested in challenging people’s thinking and, indeed, getting them to think at all instead of just taking things for granted. He wanted people to examine what they meant when they said something. He was not concerned with building things up or making things happen.
From Socrates we get the great emphasis on argument and critical thinking. Socrates chose to make argument the main thinking tool. Within argument, there was to be critical thinking: Why do you say that? What do you mean by that?
Plato (c. 427-348 B.C.)
Plato is generally held to be the father of Western philosophy. He is best-known for his famous analogy of the cave. Suppose someone is bound up so that the person cannot turn around but can only look at the back wall of the cave. There is a fire at the mouth of the cave. If someone comes into the cave, then the bound person cannot see the newcomer directly but can only see the shadow cast by the fire on the back wall of the cave. So as we go through life, we cannot see truth and reality but only “shadows” of these. If we try hard enough and listen to philosophers, then perhaps we can get a glimpse of the truth. From Plato we get the notion that there is the “truth” somewhere but that we have to search for it to find it. The way to search for the truth is to use critical thinking to attack what is untrue.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
Aristotle was the pupil of Plato and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was a very practical person. He developed the notion of “categories,” which are really definitions. So you might have a definition of a “chair” or a “table.” When you come across a piece of furniture, you have to judge whether that piece of furniture fits the definition of a chair. If it does fit, you say it is a chair. The object cannot both be a chair and not be a chair at the same time. That would be a “contradiction.” On the basis of his categories and the avoidance of contradiction, Aristotle developed the sort of logic we still use today (based largely on “is” and “is not”). From Aristotle we get a type of logic based on identity and non-identity, on inclusion and exclusion.
The Outcome of the Gang of Three
So this was the gang of three. The outcome was a thinking system based on the search for the “truth.” This search was going to be carried out by the method of argument. Within argument there was to be the critical thinking that sought to attack “untruth.” This attack was going to use the methodology of Aristotle’s logic.
The Pervasiveness of Argument
To this day, argument is the basis of our normal thinking. The purest form of this type of thinking is in the law courts where the prosecution takes one side of the argument and the defense the other side. Each strives to prove the other side wrong. The “truth” is to be reached by argument.
The Inadequacy of Argument
There is a place for argument, and argument is a useful tool of thinking. But argument is inadequate as the main tool of thinking.
Argument lacks constructive energies, design energies, and creative energies. Pointing out faults may lead to some improvement but does not construct something new. Synthesizing both points of view does not produce a stream of new alternatives.
Today in business, as elsewhere, there is a huge need to be constructive and creative. There is a need to solve problems and to open up opportunities. There is a need to design new possibilities, not just to argue between two existing possibilities.
Parallel Thinking: An Alternative to Argument
Traditional argument is totally useless for such a design process. Instead, we need Parallel Thinking®, where each thinker puts forward his or her thoughts in parallel with the thoughts of others-not attacking the thoughts of others.
The Six Thinking Hats method is a practical way of carrying out Parallel Thinking. This method is of fundamental importance because it provides us, for the first time, with a practical method of constructive thinking. We now have a more constructive alternative to argument or drifting discussion.
It is important to understand this very fundamental nature of the Six Hats method in order to appreciate the importance of the method. The Six Hats system is not just another gimmick. This system provides an alternative to that most basic of thinking procedures: the argument.
Parallel Thinking at Work
In traditional adversarial thinking, A and B are in conflict. Each side seeks to criticize the other point of view. The Six Hats method allows Parallel Thinking. Both A and B wear each hat together as they explore all sides of an issue. Adversarial confrontation is replaced by a cooperative exploration of the subject.
When we think in the normal way, we try to do too much at once. We may be looking at the information, forming ideas, and judging someone else’s ideas all at the same time.
The Six Hats method allows us to unbundle thinking. Instead of trying to do everything at once, we separate out the different aspects of thinking. This way we can pay full attention to each aspect in turn. Think of full-color printing, where the basic color separations are made and then each basic color is printed separately onto the same sheet to give full-color printing. In the same way, we separate the modes of thinking and then apply each mode to the same subject in order to end up with full-color thinking on the subject.
There is a suggestion that the chemical setting in the brain (neurotransmitters, etc.) may be different when we are being positive from when we are being negative and from when we are being creative. If this proves to be so, then there is an absolute need to separate out the different components of thinking in order to do each properly. It would be impossible to have one brain setting that was ideal for all sorts of thinking.
Separating Ego and Performance
If you do not like an idea, then you are not going to spend much time thinking of the benefits or good points of that idea. This is because if you uncovered sufficient good points for the idea to be accepted, then you would have “lost” the argument.
With the Six Hats method, however, the thinker can be specifically asked to give a yellow hat “performance.” This is a challenge to the thinker, who will not want to appear unable to perform this way. So yellow hat thinking gets done even by someone who does not like the idea. In the course of this yellow hat thinking, ideas may turn up which cause the thinker to change his or her mind. It also can happen the other way around. A euphoric supporter of an idea can be asked to do a black hat performance. This may turn up difficulties that reduce the previous euphoria.
If you ask someone not to be so negative, that person may be offended. But if you ask the person to do yellow hat thinking, there is no reason to be offended. You might also say, “That is good black hat thinking; let us have some more of it.” Later you would say, “We have had a lot of good black hat thinking. Now, what about switching to the yellow hat?”
Because the Six Hats system quickly becomes a neutral game, the method provides a very convenient way to switch thinking or to ask for a certain type of thinking. This is not easy to do in any other way without offending the people involved.
Because there is now a simple and practical way of referring to different modes of thinking, people become aware that they are stuck in one mode or another.
“I think I have only been doing red hat thinking about this.”
“We should make a deliberate yellow hat effort here.”
People can now comment on their own thinking and can also comment on the thinking of others. The Six Hats method allows an increased awareness of what thinking is actually being used on any occasion.
Who Is Using the Six Thinking Hats?
The method is widely used at Prudential Insurance (the largest insurance group in the world), and the former president of Prudential, Rob Barbaro, used the Six Hats framework every day with his staff. Siemens has over 35 certified Six Hats instructors working with employees throughout its European offices. Boeing is just now taking up the hats in the United States. The hats are also in use at Honeywell, Motorola, Eli Lilly, Cargill, Fidelity Investments, National Semiconductor, and in many other companies. Healthcare groups, religious organizations, financial institutions, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, and utilities are just a few of the industries using Six Hats.
Below are some of the key benefits clients find in using the Six Thinking Hats.
- Works-they see results immediately
- Simple to learn, use, and implement
- Not dependent on others (you can use it by yourself)
- Modifies behavior without attacking it
- Can be used at all levels
- Improves cross-cultural interaction
- Reduces conflict
- Encourages cooperation
- Enhances quality of thinking
- Supports other change initiatives
- Is available worldwide