One of the techniques I used to share with my students to help them be productive when working in teams was Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. While the conventional use of this technique is to give focus and improved effectiveness to groups in a work setting, the other day I started wondering if it could be useful in making decisions in other groups. What about an outward bound group? What about a group of kids playing in the backyard? Would it make any sense for a group of one?
The gist of the Six Thinking Hats theory is that all members of a group working on a solution to a problem or a new challenge will wear the same colour (metaphorical) hat at any one time. In other words, each member of the group will look at the problem at hand only from the perspective indicated by the colour of the hat being worn at that time: white, red, black, yellow, green, or blue.
White Hat: When you think of white, think of neutral, aka “just the facts”. When you ask for white hat thinking at a meeting you are asking people to forget about their ideas and arguments and to concentrate directly on what information is needed, what is available, and how can it be obtained.
Black Hat: When you think of black, think of negative or caution. The black hat is for critical judgment. It points out what cannot be done. The hope is that the black hat role will prevent us from making mistakes.
Red Hat: When you think of red, think of fire and passion. Red hat thinking allows people to show their emotions on a subject, their gut feelings, without needing to justify themselves. This is meant to get hidden agendas and misgivings out in the open. Once they are stated, the meeting can move on to a more constructive approach.
Green Hat: When you think of green, think of plants and growth. Green hat thinking is for new ideas, for creativity, for new alternative solutions. It’s brainstorming time.
Yellow Hat: When you think of yellow, think of the sun and positive, sunny thoughts. The yellow hat role is for discussing ONLY the positive view of problems and solution possibilities. The yellow hat looks at feasibility and benefits, but must be logically based, not intuitive like the red hat. This is often harder for us than the black hat. We are good at seeing what won’t work, as opposed to what will. Forcing ourselves to look only at the positive aspects can be very valuable, since otherwise we don’t always move forward.
Blue Hat: When you think of blue, think of the sky and an overview. The blue hat is the hardest one to understand. It controls the thinking process. The blue hat is usually “worn” by one person, who decides what colour hat everyone will put on, and when. The hat colours don’t have to follow in the same order. Depending on the situation and the mix of people, it might be better to let people get their negative thoughts out first, or their intuitive sense, and then use yellow or green to move ahead. The blue hat “wearer” guides the process being followed, asks for conclusions, decisions, etc. The blue hat can move from person to person or stay with a one group leader.
Hopefully, you can see the value in using this approach in a group. It provides a mechanism to prevent people from sabotaging each other’s ideas (inadvertently or otherwise) and for everyone to move forward as a group. Whoever is acting as leader at a given time will be able to remind a naysayer that “we are not wearing our black hats at this time”. Or, if everyone seems to be negative about the process, the leader can suggest, “let’s all put on our black hats and identify all the possible downsides and weaknesses right now.” Once that’s behind them, the leader can have everyone “put on” their yellow hats, or maybe their green hats. And so it goes.
My question to myself was: would this work with a group of children? Could they use this technique to, say, decide what game they wanted to play or what cartoon they were going to watch together? So I ran a few scenarios through my head. This is what came out:
“I don’t want to wear the same colour hat as him.”
“I don’t want to wear a yellow hat. I want to watch MY cartoon. She always gets her way.”
“I don’t like green. I want to have a purple hat.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
“I’m going home.”
Nope, this wouldn’t work well with a group of kids. Every time I tried to envision a group of children achieving consensus through this technique or any other – on their own – I simply couldn’t imagine it. My experience with three generations of small children, starting with myself, strongly suggests that cooperation is a learned action, not an instinctive one. And not easily learned at that, just ask any parent or teacher!
To test the possibility of 6 Thinking Hats being useful for an individual, I tried some scenarios on myself. Conclusion: engaging in white hat or yellow hat thinking on my own probably isn’t going to help me stop procrastinating and make a better decision. But, as a tool for encouraging a cooperative, collaborative and productive environment for (adult) group decision making, it’s definitely worth a try, even outside of work situations. Try using it the next time you are part of a group organizing a big event, just for fun!