How to Think Better

Although Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats technique has fallen out of use, it's worth another look at what can be a powerful tool for creativity.

Continuing our series of helping leaders listen and 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 programs included his technique. However, in recent years, I find that it’s fallen off the radar. Many analysts and leaders have never heard of De Bono nor his hats.

So, I will use this post to help reintroduce this technique and explain how I’ve seen it help analysts and 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 and has published 85 books, mostly focused on thinking and 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 color 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. Importantly, everyone thinks the same way at the same time – to avoid 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 colors to allow easy association and visualization. Each colored 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 ensures both that everyone has the opportunity to air his or her views and 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 and Information)

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

Red Hat (Feelings and Intuition)

This hat is about feelings, insights and intuition. So, you feel free to share your emotions and impressions. You focus, through discussion, on what people feel about the issue – including gut instincts. Importantly, there is no need to rationalize or explain your evidence for this stage. Red is associated with strong emotions, which are captured on flip-chart/Post-It notes/digital whiteboard.

Yellow Hat (Benefits and 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 and 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. Wearing this hat is like conducting a cross-examination.

Green Hat (Creativity and 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, who wears it throughout the exercise to ensure that people understand and follow the process. At the final stage, the facilitator reviews and summarizes the thinking so far and prompts the team to spot themes, draw conclusions and decide on next steps. The color blue is used because of its association with the sky, to represent oversight.

De Bono suggested that these hats could be used in different orders for different needs/challenges. However, the order above is the sequence that I’ve found most often helps data and analytics teams generate useful new thinking.

See also: How to Train Remote Workers as Teams

How does 6TH help data and analytics teams?

While this exercise may seem to lend itself to marketing or management types, I have seen (and led) sessions where this approach can help analysts, data teams and their leaders break through 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 and interpretation.

When working on using data or analytics to tackle an issue for your business or create an opportunity – the technical work alone is rarely enough. A deeper understanding of your business, processes, market and 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 surprised how well it works in getting the most out of the collective intelligence of your team.

Paul Laughlin

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Paul Laughlin

Paul Laughlin is the founder of Laughlin Consultancy, which helps companies generate sustainable value from their customer insight. This includes growing their bottom line, improving customer retention and demonstrating to regulators that they treat customers fairly.


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