August 12, 2020

Could your team think better by using these six thinking hats?

By Paul Laughlin

Continuing our series of helping leaders listen & think better, in this post I share why I recommend Edward de Bono’s thinking hats.

Over 20 years ago, when I was learning my trade as a leader, most management training programmes included this technique. However, in recent years I find that it’s fallen off the radar. Many analysts & leaders have never heard of De Bono nor his hats.

So, I will use this post to help reintroduce this technique and how I’ve seen it help analysts & leaders.

Introducing Edward de Bono and his hats

Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono (phew, what a name), was born in 1933 in Malta. He has numerous degrees & has published 85 books, mostly focussed on thinking & use of language. Indeed, he is the originator of the term ‘lateral thinking‘.

One of his most popular techniques for lateral thinking (solving problems by an indirect and creative approach) is called Six Thinking Hats or 6TH. The technique is based on the idea that there are six imaginary hats. Each hat is a different colour and represents a different type of thinking.

When you ‘put a hat on’, you operate exclusively in that mode of thinking. When you change from one hat to another, you change thinking modes. And importantly everyone thinks the same way at the same time – so avoiding futile conflict.

Why and how 6TH?

DeBono developed the technique having noticed that when critical or contentious decisions need to be made, teams can find themselves in deadlock, stuck in a rut. They end up simply recycling the same ideas or variations on the same.

De Bono chose six hats to cover the different approaches to thinking he’d identified, and he gave them different colours to allow easy association & visualisation. Each coloured hat represents a particular type of thinking, each with its own ‘rules’ about that type of thinking.

By requiring everyone to use the same hat – everyone is using the same way of thinking – at the same time. 6TH both ensures everyone has the opportunity to air their views & that every angle of the issue is properly explored. So, you should get a full and open discussion with everyone working together.

Introducing those 6 different Thinking Hats

So, in a 6 hats workshop, a facilitator guides each participant to ‘put on‘, in order, the following hats…

White Hat (Facts & Information)

With this hat on, you must think about any & all relevant facts, the data you can observe or have already captured. You look at what is already known & any information gaps you identify. A great place to start for data & analytics teams. The workshop works best if robust data has been filtered and curated beforehand so you know you are on firm foundations. It’s white because of the association with white paper for printed facts.

Red Hat (Feelings & Intuition)

This hat is about feelings, insights and intuition. So, you feel free to share your emotions & impressions. You focus, through discussion, on what people feel about the issue – including gut instincts. Importantly, there is no need to rationalise or explain your evidence for this stage. Red is associated with strong emotions. But, rather than fighting, for all stages, the ideas are simply captured on flip-chart/post-it notes/digital whiteboard.

Yellow Hat (Benefits & Advantages)

With this hat on, you all focus on being optimistic. What could go right? What’s the best that could happen? Together you capture possible advantages, benefits or opportunities. This can be really fun for the more positive extroverts in the group. Yellow is used because of its association with sunshine and positivity.

Black hat (Caution & Problems)

Like a Yin to the above Yang, this hat is all about being a pessimist or at least a risk manager. What could go wrong? Why wouldn’t that other idea work? As a group, you focus on the problems, risks and challenges that you can imagine. Black is not used to be associated with evil or depression, but rather the formality of lawyers robes. It’s like a cross-examination.

Green Hat (Creativity & Solutions)

With this hat on, it’s like the green-fingered getting to work in a new garden. What can you germinate? The team is asked to consider new ideas or build on ones already identified. This stage is most akin to brainstorming or mind mapping in other creative workshops, but with the help of prompts from work done already. Green represents new growth.

Blue Hat (Managing your Thinking)

Unlike the other hats, this one is worn by just the facilitator for the group. It is the hat that they wear throughout to ensure people understand and follow the process. At this stage they review & summarise the thinking so far & prompt the team to spotting themes, draw conclusions & decide on next steps. Bringing the process to a conclusion. The colour blue is used because of its association with the sky, to represent oversight.

It should be noted that Edward de Bono suggested that these hats could be used in different orders for different needs/challenges. He called these pre-set sequences. However, the order above is the sequence that I’ve found most often helps data & analytics teams generate useful new thinking.

How does 6TH help data & analytics teams?

So, what am I bothering to share what could sound quite theoretical, or at least more for marketing or management types? In short, because I have seen (and led sessions) where this approach can help analysts, data teams & their leaders breakthrough what have been intractable problems.

You may recall that I have shared before how structured thinking techniques can really help with generating customer insights from analytics. I’ve also stressed the importance of domain knowledge and working with others in your business to improve the quality of your analysis & interpretation.

When working on using data or analytics to tackle an issue for your business or create a new opportunity – the technical work alone is rarely enough. A deeper understanding of your business, processes, market & customers is often needed. Following robust analysis or model building, it’s important to take time to think well about what it means for your business and next best steps (the ‘Sign-Off’ step in my 9 step model).

How will you use 6 Thinking Hats?

For all those situations, I recommend trying this approach. You may well be really surprised how well it works in getting the most out of the collective intelligence of your team. It is particularly powerful if blended with creating a Thinking Environment so everyone is heard. If you would like a facilitator to run such a session for you, please get in touch.

Meanwhile, you can find out more about Edward de Bono and his other clever ideas on his corporate website:

Edward de Bono – Inventor of Lateral Thinking and Strategic Brain Training

Dr. Edward de Bono, Brain Training and Lateral Thinking pioneer. Edward de Bono is one of the pioneers of Brain Training. In 1967 he invented the world famous Lateral Thinking technique. He is a proponent of the direct teaching of thinking as a skill.