Six Thinking Hats

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Taking a decision can often be onerous, whether in a professional or private context; much thinking and worrying can precede the actual act of deciding. Everyone has experienced moments when they turn in circles and are unable to come to a conclusion. Situations like these can be complicated for numerous reasons, especially in the context of group discussions when character incompatibility hinders consensus agreement. In order to optimize thought processes and facilitate decision making, Edward de Bono presents a structured approach to thinking: The Six Thinking Hats.

De Bono and the Six Thinking Hats

Edward de Bono, British writer and philosopher, deems complexity and confusion to be the greatest barriers to efficient thinking. In this light, de Bono developed a new approach to thinking, aimed at changing the thinking process and increasing efficiency by imposing a structure: The Six Thinking Hats. Despite the relative age of this concept (it was introduced almost thirty years ago), it still enjoys a high degree of popularity not only among consultants and coaches, but also in daily usage by many companies and schools. It is claimed that the Six Thinking Hats can be used by pre-school children as well as at manager level in companies – its universal effectiveness lies in its simplicity. De Bono states that empirical experiments among managers have shown their mental productivity increases by almost 500% when using the Six Thinking Hats approach. Indeed, companies such as IMB, Shell and even NASA have indicated to have used this approach with a positive outcome.

Summary of the Hats

Even though there are licensed ambassadors teaching the Six Thinking Hats and other De Bono approaches, a quick summary of the six hats grants a better insight into the method of the Six Thinking Hats:

The blue hat plays a special role as it does not represent a phase in itself, but rather a role assigned to one person. Thus the blue hat stands for organisation and means that the person in charge will oversee the whole discussion and lead the meeting.

The white hat stands for neutrality and objectivity, its aim is to gather a maximum of facts and information with regard to the topic of discussion.

The red hat represents all emotional aspects of a topic. It allows time to talk about feelings and sentiments, which do not need to be justified.

The black hat represents the critical phase, when all potential problems, risks and obstacles are assessed.

The yellow hat phase is when participants make positive, constructive assessments and suggestions and optimistic visions for the future.

The green hat represents creativity, in a phase similar to brainstorming; participants generate new concepts and perceptions to add momentum to the discussion.

Why Hats?

Individuals who are first introduced to the Six Thinking Hats are often sceptical about the concept, indeed at first, six hats in six different colours may seem ludicrous, but they carry symbolic meanings. Metaphors such as “thinking cap” or “having a bee in one’s bonnet” are frequent in English, showing that the link between hats and thinking is not new. The colour of each hat is symbolic for the thinking mode it represents, encouraging and facilitating switching from one mode to another.

Figuratively speaking, putting on a certain thinking hat transforms the wearer into a role in which they should approach a problem from a certain angle to the best of their abilities. The hats indicate the direction in which to think and the angle from which to approach an issue. Indeed the Six Thinking Hats was inspired by the Confucian tradition, as it lays out rules of behaviour rather than focusing on character and personality. This forces people to set aside their usual habits: an optimist will have to consider possible downsides of an idea, just as much as a pessimist will have to see positive aspects in a topic.

Parallel Thinking and Map Making

De Bono states that through the application of the Six Thinking Hats, individuals are required to use parallel thinking. Because all participants in a discussion will engage in an issue from the same angle at the same time, de Bono suggested the metaphor of parallel thinking. The combination of role-play in artificial thinking modes, together with parallel thinking exercised by all those involved leaves no space for ego involvement or conflicts. The use of this clearly structured thinking process removes confrontational thinking from group discussions, which constitutes a major advantage of the application of the Six Thinking Hats, as they offer a productive and time-saving approach to problem solving.

Furthermore, the consecutive order of different thinking modes ensures that any issue is tackled from many perspectives. Another metaphor related to the Six Thinking Hats, namely “map making”, relates to this idea of broad thinking using an exploratory approach. Thus the consecutive use of the different hats adds different layers of information to the discussion of a problem, similar to the process of making a map.

Conclusion

The Six Thinking Hats provide a useful framework for group discussions, as they provide a clear structure for discussions. Inevitably the concept does have a few limitations, namely the problem that inexperienced users may confuse the different roles resulting in a certain amount of overlap between the hats, but this does depend on the habits and attitudes of the participants involved. In this context, there may be, for example, some overlap between the green and the yellow hat and similarly the choice whether a fact belongs to the white or black hat category is not always straightforward. Furthermore, even though the hats are claimed to represent defined modes of thinking, their use may still be subject to interpretation by the participants. However, once individuals are familiar with the different hats, the Six Thinking Hats provides a very useful tool for problem solving.

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