Six Thinking Hats

Six Thinking Hats is a book by Edward de Bono. The term Six Thinking Hats is used to describe the tool for group discussion and individual thinking. “Six Thinking Hats” and the associated idea parallel thinking provide a means for groups to plan thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive way, and in doing so to think together more effectively.

The premise of the method is that the human brain thinks in a number of distinct ways which can be deliberately challenged, and hence planned for use in a structured way allowing one to develop tactics for thinking about particular issues. De Bono identifies six distinct directions in which the brain can be challenged. In each of these directions the brain will identify and bring into conscious thought certain aspects of issues being considered (e.g. gut instinct, pessimistic judgement, neutral facts). None of these directions are completely natural ways of thinking, but rather how some of us already represent the results of our thinking.

You can find PowerPoint templates illustrating this framework in this document available on Flevy.

Since the hats do not represent natural modes of thinking, each hat must be used for a limited time only. Also many will feel that using the hats are unnatural, uncomfortable or even counter productive and against their better judgement. A compelling example presented is sensitivity to “mismatch” stimuli. This is presented as a valuable survival instinct, because, in the natural world: the thing that is out of the ordinary may well be dangerous. This mode is identified as the root of negative judgement and critical thinking.

Utilizing this framework and seeing things in various ways is often a good idea in strategy formation or complex decision-making processes.

Purposes of 6 Thinking Hats

  • Simplify thinking by allowing one to deal with one thing at a time. De Bono identified six styles of thinking and assigned a color to each one. One thinking style is not inherently better than another; it’s just a different way of looking at something.
  • Allow switching in thinking from one style to another. He likened switching to putting on and taking off a hat. The combination of colors and hats provides an idiom that instructs how to think without being offensive. By turning thinking into role-playing with simple rules, it does not threaten a person’s ego or personality.

The Six Thinking Hats Colors

Each of the Hats is named for a color that is mnemonically descriptive of the perspective one adopts when wearing the particular hat. For example the devil’s advocacy is what one engages in when wearing the Black Thinking Hat.

  • White Hat (think of a sheet of paper): FACTS and FIGURES; neutral and objective view; focus on information available, what info is needed, how it might be obtained.
  • Red Hat (think of fire, warmth): EMOTIONS, FEELINGS, intuition, hunches; focus on quickly expressing without explanation nor justification required.
  • Black Hat (think of a stern judge wearing black robe): LOGICAL NEGATIVE support; focus on pessimism, why something is wrong, being judgmental and critical.
  • Yellow Hat (think of sunshine): LOGICAL POSITIVE support; focus on optimism, benefits, what’s good, being constructive.
  • Green Hat (think of growing plants): CREATIVE and LATERAL thinking; focus on change, innovation, invention; new ideas, possibilities, concepts, perceptions, paradigms.
  • Blue Hat (think of the sky, cool): CONTROL of THINKING PROCESS; focus on thinking about thinking, overview; being cool and in control of the overall process and use of other hats.

De Bono’s hats are indicative of both emotional states as well as frames of mind (i.e., perspective from which an issue is viewed). He noted: “Emotions are an essential part of our thinking ability and not just something extra that mucks up our thinking” (1985, p27). One thinking style (or hat) is not inherently “better” than another. A full, balanced team recognizes the need for all hats in order for the team to consider all aspects of whatever issues they are facing.

When to Use the Six Thinking Hats

  • Individual use: Consciously using one hat or another for every thinking moment is overkill. 6TH is for occasional usage when a person may want to sort out one’s thoughts by putting on a particular hat. To handle a more difficult or complex issue, a formal structured sequence would be laid out beforehand.
  • Group use: De Bono calls the act of deliberately having everyone wear the same hat at the same time Parallel Thinking. Topics are explored together factually and emotionally. It is a vast improvement over traditional adversarial thinking where people take sides and argue back and forth hoping that some useful outcome will emerge.
  • Note that 6TH is not a labeling exercise. Example: “He is in Accounting and is a Black Hat thinker.” or “Those Marketing guys only think with the Yellow Hat on.” The hats are categories of thinking behavior and not of people themselves.
  • Good thinkers are comfortable wearing all six hats and learn to easily switch them. Parallel Thinking calls for everyone to contribute under each hat.

Main Benefits of Six Thinking Hats. Advantages

  1. Allows one to say things without risk. Very strong in preventing the Spiral of Silence.
  2. Create awareness that there are multiple perspectives on the issue at hand
  3. Provides a convenient mechanism for ‘switching gears’, thinking in deliberate different ways
  4. Set rules for the game of thinking
  5. Temporarily focus thinking on one aspect
  6. Helps individuals expand their thinking capacity by adopting a perspective that is not necessarily their own
  7. Leads to more creative thinking through unhampered dialogue that builds on each other’s contributions
  8. Improves communication, since egos are not threatened and people are never personally attacked
  9. Improves decision making, because attention is given to all aspects of a problem/opportunity (pros, cons, gains, risks, etc.)

Typical Steps in a Six Thinking Hats Workshop

The Hats may be used in many different sequences depending on the nature of the issue. But here is a typical agenda for a situation where a problem has just surfaced and a fix is needed within the next half hour. The team leader will facilitate by wearing the Blue Hat and lead the team of 5 workers through the thinking process.

  1. Blue Hat (2 mins): State purpose of the meeting and expected outcome. Show hat sequence and time limits to be used.
  2. White Hat (10 mins): Present the facts of the problem.
  3. Green Hat (3 mins): Generate ideas on possible solutions.
  4. Red Hat (10 secs): Using intuition, vote with hands on the most practical solution from the list.
  5. Yellow Hat (3 mins): Identify the benefits of the solution picked.
  6. Black Hat (3 mins): List the drawbacks and risks.
  7. Red Hat (10 secs): Get everybody’s “Go/ No Go” gut feeling.
  8. Green Hat (3 mins): Identify means to overcome concerns raised under the Black Hat.
  9. Blue Hat (5 mins): Summarize and create an action plan. Adjourn the meeting.
Business frameworks like Six Thinking Hats are invaluable to evaluating and analyzing various business problems. You can download business frameworks developed by management consultants and other business professionals at Flevy here.

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