Unravel your thinking with de Bono’s six thinking hats

Today we’re going to explore using de Bono’s six thinking hats to unravel our thinking. It’s a simple but effective way to help groups deal with complex situations and be able to move forward with their decision making. 

John remembers meeting Edward de Bono back in 2006 when he ran a workshop about lateral thinking in Brisbane. It was a great workshop and he kept everyone interested the whole day with the little stories he told during his presentation. 

de Bono suggests that people think in six different modes. Unfortunately we often undertake these modes simultaneously, which hinders our ability to think effectively. By focusing our attention on one mode at a time and moving deliberately from one to another, we can improve our thinking and decision-making process. This is as true for groups as it is for individuals. Sometimes John explains it as being like a big ball of tangled wool of different colours. It’s better to tease them apart and wrap each coloured thread into its own ball. 

de Bono suggests that these modes are like hats that should be worn one at a time and easily interchanged. He’s assigned colours to each of the hats, so let’s work through them one by one.

The yellow hat represents all things positive and constructive. It puts forward a solidly based optimism from which arises concrete proposals and suggestions. It’s concerned with implementation and making things work. Its thinking extends from extreme logic and practicality, through to dreams and visions at the other end.

The black hat focuses on negative judgement. It signals when something is bad, incorrect or mistaken. It indicates why a proposed activity will not work and lists the potential risks and dangers. It can project an idea into the future to see if it will fail or collapse. It specialises in posing what-if questions designed to focus on the negatives. Feelings are not involved – this is straight logic. This is a super helpful hat, as it helps you identify possible failures. It’s a bit like running a pre-mortem, which we covered in an earlier episode. 

The white hat is neutral and objective. It has a thirst for facts and data but does not put forward opinions and does not interpret the data. This hat uses focused questions to ascertain and obtain gaps in data. Data is classified into two types: proven or verified facts, and facts that are not totally verified but may still be assumed to be true. de Bono says there is a spectrum of probability which extends from infallible truth to complete untruth.

The red hat focuses on emotions and allows the thinker to share what they are feeling about the issue. It also enables us to explore the feelings of others, to determine how the group feels emotionally about the topic at hand. There is no need to justify our feelings or provide a logical base for them. The feelings can range from the strong emotions such as fear and happiness, to the more subtle such as suspicion.

The green hat is used for creative thought. This hat has the need to go far beyond the known and the obvious. The thinker moves from one idea to another and develops their vision in the process. The green hat often challenges our existing concepts. This hat specialises in lateral thinking.

Finally, the blue hat is the control hat. It’s like the conductor of an orchestra, in that it coordinates the use of the other hats. This hat focuses our thinking on particular issues, and directs the line of thought. It’s good for summarising the discussion, clarifying the vision, and suggesting conclusions. The blue hat imposes discipline to the thinking process.

So how we use the six thinking hats? Firstly, there is no set order to using the hats. You can start and finish with any one of them. Secondly, you can also wear them more than once during a discussion, if you feel it necessary to go back and further explore one of the roles. 

John says he often starts with the white hat to draw out the facts, then moves to the red hat to explore emotions, then the yellow hat to focus on the positive elements, swapping over to the black hat to tease out the negative elements. John then uses the green hat to explore creative opportunities and finishes with the blue hat to summarise the discussion and discuss next steps. But there is no set order and it should really depend on the situation. 

Denise says that she has mainly used them in workshop settings to evaluate ideas or projects as she finds it helps people untangle their emotional reaction to something. You can use it like an ORID because it helps slow down people’s processing, so they can evaluate what’s being talked about. This can mean that you might only use the red, yellow and black hats.

You do not have to use all of the hats if you do not need to. In a meeting you might say “Let’s put on our red hats and think about how our customers will feel about this change”. Or perhaps if the group is being way too optimistic about something, you could invite them to put on their black hats and consider some unintended consequences. 

Don’t spend too much time on any particular hat, as you do not want over-thinking and potential waffling by participants. Enforce discipline and don’t let people jump back to mention an item from a previous hat during the discussion of the current one; as that breaks the focus. 

This has been a summary of what we consider to be the important points of this really useful approach. If you are serious about using this tool, you should buy the book and read it! 

You have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! Add a comment below this blog post and tell us about your experiences with using the six thinking hats, including any tips and further ideas about it. Join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe if you’d like to know when new posts are available. And if you liked what you heard, then tell your friends!

Resources

de Bono, E 1985 Six thinking hats, Little, Brown and Company, USA.

Pre-mortem episode: https://www.enablersofchange.com.au/save-your-project-from-failing-by-using-a-pre-mortem/ 

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Graham Harris
Graham Harris
5 months ago

Thanks once again Denise and John – a great summary of de Bono’s thinking hats. This is a great tool for both the individual and groups to explore an issue and consider approaches to dealing with it.

Dr. Faheem Khan
Dr. Faheem Khan
5 months ago

Thanks Professor John,
You are doing an excellent Job.

Regards,
Dr. Faheem Khan
Assistant Professor
Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi, Pakistan.