It took me a long time to get round to reading Six Thinking Hats, but finally after 25 years of corporate training I took the plunge.
I was expecting a brainstorming process, because that’s how I had most often heard of the ‘Six Hats’ being used, but it turns out that this short and accessible book gives you much more than that.
In the preface to the revised and updated edition (publication date weirdly not stated inside the book – bad show, Penguin), de Bono describes it as a method to make meetings, decision-making, and problem solving more productive, citing improvements of 500% or more.
The method relies on separating thinking into six clear modes, each symbolised by a ‘thinking hat’ of a particular colour. The idea is that by consciously switching ‘hats’ to whatever mode of thinking is required, you can switch the focus of your conversation or meeting, without the ego resistance that such ‘course corrections’ might normally trigger among participants.
To quickly run down each ‘hat’:
- The White Hat is neutral and objective. It calls for information, either known or needed, distinguishing between proven ‘first-class’ facts and ‘second-class’ facts that are believed to be true but have not yet been fully checked.
- The Red Hat allows the statement or exploration of feelings, without offering or asking for a justification of them.
- The Black Hat is cautious, seeking out risks, weaknesses and downsides of an idea or proposed course of action. It is concerned with ‘fit’: does this proposal fit our values, our resources, our past experience? Its purpose is to put these ‘caution points’ on the map, not to argue for them.
- The Yellow Hat is constructive, positive, and optimistic. It is concerned with making things happen.
- The Green Hat is about creativity and new ideas, moving forward from one idea to the next. It seeks to go beyond the known, the obvious and the ‘good enough’.
- The Blue Hat is the controller that organises the thinking itself. It is the role of the chair or facilitator, and involves keeping the meeting on track, summarising and concluding, and can offer processes for participants to follow to reach a particular result. The blue hat can suggest the meeting switches modes of thinking to a different hat.
What are the virtues of the Six Hats method? Firstly, they recognise that all of these different modes of thinking – emotion and neutral fact-seeking, looking for ways to make something work and looking for flaws that might stop it from working, raw creativity and process-monitoring overview – are all necessary components of good decision-making. By flagging up which mode of thinking is going on at any given time, the decision-making process can be rebalanced if it is too reliant on some modes and light on others.
Separating out each mode of thinking into its own hat allows each to be used ‘cleanly’, without being inhibited by other modes. You can’t focus wholeheartedly on generating new possibilities if part of your mind is thinking about what could go wrong. Knowing that the black hat’s turn will come will liberate your mind to be creative when you are in green hat mode.
Also, the Six Hats make it easier to come out with ideas that some other participants might not like, without personally identifying yourself with the ideas and thereby arousing resistance that is to do with their feelings about you rather than the merits of the idea: “If I could just raise some black hat concerns here…”. It also works the other way – the hat gives some distance from the idea, so you aren’t tarnished by association with an unpopular idea.
The hats also legitimise the expression of ideas that might be hard to surface in some work cultures. De Bono gives the example that in Japan it is regarded as bad manners to criticise anything the boss says. Explicitly asking for a black hat view, or putting the black hat label on your idea, makes it part of the process rather than an impertinent attack.
Similarly, in the Western boardroom, the focus is often on avoiding risk and fixing problems rather than making positive things happen. When you’ve heard enough about downsides, you can recognise the black hat thinking and then explicitly ask for some yellow hat thinking to get more positive, outcome-focused contributions.
The Six Hats method makes it easier to recognise consciously what kind of thinking you and others are doing. As human beings, we are experts at self-deception, but even if we kid ourselves that our black hat critical thinking is white hat factually-based realism, other participants can notice and put us right – as long as they are all familiar with the model.
The hats can also be used in a predetermined sequence for a particular purpose – for example, green followed by yellow followed by black for idea generation (although, if you are looking solely for a process for idea generation, NLP’s ‘Disney Strategy’ is easier to use and explain because there’s less to get your head round).
Popping on my black hat for a moment, what are the potential downsides of this method? Like any process, it’s only as good as its chair or facilitator. An insecure or overly ego-driven boss, for example, could easily use their blue hat role to head off criticism if it gets too uncomfortable for their pet project, or shut down unwanted ideas by calling for the black hat prematurely.
Again as with any process, I think some diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints is needed to stop ‘groupthink’ happening. It will be harder for a group to spot mislabelled thinking if all participants share the same perceptions of which of their assumptions are fact-based and which may be matters of faith or probability.
Finally, the method relies on all participants being familiar with the Six Hats. If a new entrant has not come across the method before, they will be at a disadvantage until they get up to speed with it.
Subject to those caveats though, I could see the method working extremely well. Perhaps it should be taught in schools as standard. If the Six Hats were prevalent in everyday discourse, they would at the very least take some of the heat out of the culture wars raging in the US and the UK at the moment. It’s hard to see how ‘fake news’ could survive white hat thinking, for example.
In summary, this book is an easy but thought-provoking read that will help you get clearer about what mode of thought you are in at any given time. If you are a coach, facilitator or manager, it gives you useful guidelines for more productive meetings, decision making and problem solving.