Are difficult problems part of your daily life at the office? If so, stand up and wave your hand because I think we work at the same place!
I manage projects at a creative agency, and it seems like every time I log into my email, there’s yet another large problem to deal with. For me, these issues are along the lines of:
- Jason the photographer left his camera in the Uber and no one at the company has returned his texts yet. By the way, the shoot is in half an hour.
- The model we hired for our client’s magazine cover has developed an unexpected allergy to strawberries, and after snacking on the fruit platter, she bears an uncanny resemblance to a strawberry herself.
- The graphic design department sends a team email, exclaiming that the licensing fees for their Adobe software need renewing. Until then, they can’t use the programs and the CFO, who has the credit card we use for these purchases, is on a long-haul flight to New Zealand.
Not every day is this crazy, but the potential is always there.
Fortunately, a physician, author, and consultant named Edward de Bono had a crystal ball in 1985 and knew that 30 years from now, problems would be bigger than ever and people would need a creative solution for solving them.
Okay, that might be stretching it. But it is true that Mr. de Bono founded the concept of lateral thinking and wrote a book called Six Thinking Hats, which unveiled a problem-solving model consisting of six mindsets. These mindsets are called the Six Thinking Hats.
Each hat occupies a different role and brings its own perspectives to the table, making it easier to solve the problem at hand. I’ve found that its value goes beyond problem-solving alone- you can use it to:
- Inspire idea generation sessions
- Make team meetings more productive
- Improve team decision-making
Although ideal for group discussions, you can also use six hats thinking to solve personal or career challenges, although you can only wear one hat at a time.
What is 6 Thinking Hats?
With six hats thinking, you adopt a parallel thinking process that examines an issue from different angles. Each hat has a different color that represents a specific mindset. Below is a general overview of the different roles, purpose, and goals behind each hat.
Blue hats concentrate on controlling a process. You wear this hat when leading a team meeting or MCing an event. This is probably why blue hats are compared to movie directors (or project managers!) responsible for making multiple moving parts work in unison. They ask themselves questions like:
- What problem are we facing?
- What are the desired outcome?
- What will solving this problem achieve?
- What is the most effective method of proceeding?
The blue hat manages the thinking process during group sessions, allowing for greater harmony between the thought patterns of the other thinking hats. After defining the problem, they manage the flow, adoption, and implementation of ideas by:
- Setting an agenda
- Defining processes and objectives that drive the thinking process forward
- Collating all the ideas, opinions, and information presented by the other thinking hats
- Structuring an action plan for solving the problem
Example: As a project manager, I wear this hat more than any other. Whenever a meeting is called, I spend time beforehand defining the problem (the client has changed their mind about the website color scheme midway through the timeline) and identifying the desired outcome (either a deadline extension or client approval to increase the budget so we can get the extra staff needed to finish on time). After assembling everyone’s ideas, I create an action plan that I can bring to the client.
White hat thinkers focus on the information available. This includes hard data like verified facts and figures and soft data like feelings and opinions. They use everything to analyze past trends and learn from them. Common questions include:
- What information is available right now?
- What do we need and what is missing?
- How are we going to get any needed or missing information?
When you’re wearing a white hat, you’re not in idea-generating mode, although you can report on ideas that others suggest. If this mindset had a catchphrase, it would be “Just the facts, ma’am!”
White hats are great at the beginning of a session because they approach from an informed perspective. They also do an effective wrap-up job using all the data brought to the table and accumulated while negotiations were in progress.
Example: When my team is in white-hat mode, we only discuss and share the facts and information about the problem. There’s no development in the thinking process itself, only information sharing. We confirm that the client has changed their mind about the color scheme of their website, which will either extend the deadline by a week or cost an extra $600 to bring in the talent needed to complete the work on time.
Yellow hats are fun to be around because they are perpetual optimists. They are quick to see the benefits of a decision and will keep you going when everything is bleak and giving up is the least difficult option.
Questions you can expect from a yellow hat thinker include:
- What’s the best way to approach this issue?
- What positive outcomes could result?
- How can we make it work?
- What are the long-term benefits?
Cheery like the sun, yellow hats provide the optimism needed to keep going when you’re sorely tempted to call it a day. No idea is too far-fetched to merit positive consideration, which encourages more creative thinking and concepts.
The mantra of a yellow hat thinker is “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” They just have to avoid embracing solutions that are based solely on opinions and hypothetical facts.
Example: As yellow hats, we refuse to believe that no solution exists. We talk about the advantages of each idea and how we can make them work. If the client approves a deadline extension, we’ll make sure everyone on the team remains available longer than originally planned. If they okay a budget increase, we can talk to department heads about lending us necessary staff.
Red hat thinkers are all about emotion, gut reaction, and intuition. Not only theirs but others who may be affected by a solution or outcome. This is one of the many reasons why the red hat is metaphorically referred to as ‘the heart’ of the discussion. They ask questions like:
- How does this make me feel?
- How does this make other people feel?
- What’s my hunch about this?
- Are there any internal conflicts?
This isn’t a bad thing. A big part of solving problems is intuitively examining it and any potential solutions. They just have to be careful not to let preconceived biases guide their opinions. Once the appropriate filters are in place, a red hat thinker’s feelings can uncover solutions that a strictly logical approach would never have uncovered.
Example: As red hats, everyone on the team rates solutions from an emotional perspective: ours and the client’s. Which ones are more likely to cause anger or frustration? Would the client be more receptive to a delayed website delivery or increased budget?
As their name suggests, black hat thinkers look at the potentially negative outcomes of a decision. They’re cautious and look for reasons why something might not work, asking questions like:
- Will this really work?
- How is this likely to fail
- How can we justify this financially?
While this doesn’t sound like an inspiring person to be around, they just might save your project, because they identify weak points that should be discovered sooner rather than later. Black Hat thinking will also make your solutions more resilient and effective because you’ve run them through grueling worst-case scenarios.
Example: When we wear black hats, it’s time to talk about what can go wrong. What are the reasons why a deadline extension might not work? How can the request for additional budget money cause problems?
Green Hats excel at devising creative solutions to a problem. They are possibility thinkers who go outside the box for solutions and aren’t afraid to break rules and traditions. They ask questions like:
- Can we do this a different way?
- How can I think outside the box about this issue?
- How can we adopt a unique perspective?
Green hats aren’t intimidated by rules, traditions, or limitations. Like yellow hats, they embrace creative and unusual ideas that could lead to equally singular solutions. The one thing they have to watch for is inner censors that can cause hesitation when presenting an unusual concept to a less adventurous audience.
Example: Green hats on, we think about the issue from a creative and innovative perspective. If the client insists on the original deadline, why not make a party out of those longer hours? We can dress casually after 5:00 p.m.- maybe in pajamas? That one makes all of us laugh. Then someone suggests bringing pizza in and having a crazy pajama contest.
When Six Hats Get Together
By now, you’re probably wondering how to use the six thinking hats in a meeting context. What are the interactions? How are things achieved?
In my experience, it goes something like this:
- The blue hat initiates and directs the meeting to ensure that everyone stays on track.
- One by one, each hat is selected, and the team examines the problem only from that hat’s perspective. For example, when green hat thinking takes place, the blue hat makes sure that no negative (black hat) or emotional (red hat) perspectives creep in.
In terms of hat sequences, it always depends on what we’re trying to achieve, and we don’t always use every hat. When we’re brainstorming product launches, for example, we usually take the following approach:
- Blue– to define the purpose of the meeting and get it started.
- Green– to inspire the creativity needed to think of a new and exciting way to reach client audiences.
- Red– to consider what emotions the various campaign possibilities would inspire.
The six hats thinking method enables teams to think deeply about problems without offending anyone personally. These types of thinking are about innovation and exploration, not ego and opinion. What you have a skillful blue hat orchestrating things, the result is a meeting where collaboration underscores everything and better decisions are made faster.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.