The Six Thinking Hats, a concept articulated by Edward de Bono, is a powerful tool for brainstorming and innovation. By breaking down thoughts into six “parallel” or “lateral” areas, it allows a spectrum of thought, from gut feeling to data analysis, to be separately discussed. By using these six types of thinking in a structured way, groups can more effectively approach problem solving.
The Six Thinking Hats
First, let's briefly explain the six hats and the role each plays:
Our natural way of speaking often combines multiple hats. For example we may say, "This idea aligns with our current strategy and could improve our market position, but I'm not sure the cost is reasonable or that our customers will fall in love with it." That sentence goes from white hat (aligns with strategy – a fact) to yellow (improve market position – a benefit) to black (costly – what could go wrong) to red (customers may not love it – feelings). The six hat approach helps us to analyze these hats into different statements and consider them separately.
Manages the thinking process by timekeeping, moderating, and ensuring the Thinking Hat guidelines are observed.
"We will discuss this matter for one hour."
"Time to Yellow Hat this idea. Everything else aside, what are the benefits of this plan?"
"Let’s set aside emotional responses for the moment; we’ll come to them when it is time to put on the Red Hat."
Calls for and provides facts and data that are known or needed.
"What does it cost us to manufacture one unit?"
"Revenue was up 8.5% last quarter."
"There are estimated to be 75 million people that are 18-34 years of age in the US, as of last year."
Focuses on alternatives, new perceptions, or fresh ideas.
"Instead of manufacturing in China, we could refurbish a plant in Detroit."
"This is a difficult position. Let’s brainstorm some potential solutions to address the Black Hat problems."
"Are there other options?"
Finds the value and benefits of ideas and supporting concepts.
"Can we curtail heating or air conditioning to save on energy costs?"
"Our sales staff already has a lot of experience selling widgets."
"Pushing into a new market segment would open up a lot of room for growth."
Acknowledges feelings like fear, disappointment, enthusiasm, and expresses intuitions or hunches.
"That suggestion makes me angry."
"I really love this project! I’m excited to work more on it!"
"There is no White Hat data to support it, but my gut says customers are afraid we'll cut legacy support down the road."
Spots problems and tries to make the best argument against an idea.
"We don’t have the production capacity to expand that fast."
"I’m pretty sure that would be illegal."
"That idea has a lot of Yellow Hat benefits, what problems can we find with it?"
Using The Thinking Hats in Team Activities
Teams can use these hats in any order during a discussion, but typically progress from blue, to white, to green, to yellow, to red, and finally to black. This order organizes the discussion:
Blue: Start with the approach and process
White: Review the facts
Green: Generate new ideas without judgement
Yellow: Focus on the benefits
Red: Consider emotional responses to any ideas
Black: Apply critical thinking after the benefits have been explored to test the viability of the new ideas
Any hat could make a reappearance in the discussion. For example, after facts (white) are laid out, more process (blue) may be applied, or after pros (yellow) and cons (black) are discussed, new ideas (green) may surface.
Thinking Hat Example
Here is an example using the Six Thinking Hats to examine and discuss a potential business decision. At Storyboard That, we constructed a fictional project: Social-Local-Mobile-Food, or SoLoMoFoo to illustrate all sorts of business ideas. This example shows how the Six Thinking Hats would be applied by the SoLoMoFoo team. Thoughts are explicitly broken down as answers to questions that correspond with each hat.
”Parallel Thinking” is de Bono’s term for a constructive alternative to “adversarial thinking”, or debate. Unlike adversarial approaches, where participants are championing ideas against each other, parallel thinking proposes that each participant work along a different track of thought, or that all participants approach one way of thinking at a time. Rather than opposing each other, everyone participating works along separate courses towards a common goal.
This is what a meeting looks like when parallel thinking isn’t enforced. The participants aren’t actively using the six hats, and while their statements, questions, and suggestions can each be identified, value is being lost as they shift between modes of thinking and get caught up on individual ideas.
This isn’t a bad meeting, but it is easy to see how participants could get caught up defending a pet idea or attacking other people’s suggestions. Let’s look at how it could improve if the participants engage in parallel thinking. As this scenario illustrates, parallel thinking has a number of advantages. It separates thoughts to avoid confusion and helps participants furnish better answers by asking them to tackle small, discrete questions, rather than large, complex ones. It creates an atmosphere conducive to exploring ideas rather than one set on proving one side right. The Six Thinking Hats are a tool for enforcing a disciplined parallel thinking strategy.