Six Thinking Hats – greater clarity of thinking leads to better decisions

Six Thinking Hats is a great method for thinking with greater clarity, and as a result you’ll make better decisions. You can use it yourself and share it with your team when you’re ready.

In this article you’ll discover:

  • The benefits of using Six Thinking Hats
  • The hats and the thinking they represent
  • Examples of when to use this method
  • How to begin to apply the Six Thinking hats with your team

Let’s jump in.

The many benefits of using Six Thinking Hats

There are many benefits of using the Six Thinking Hats, I’ve distilled a few:

  1. You can be more deliberate in exploring different perspectives
  2. The method boosts your creativity (the Green Hat gives you permission to be expensive with your thinking)
  3. You’ll be more engaged with your thinking
  4. Each thinking hat gives you permission to explore and contribute
  5. In teams, this allows diverse opinions to be heard

All of this leads to better decision-making, for you and your team.

The Six Thinking Hats and the thinking they represent

Each hat represents a different type of thinking (and each color has been selected to represent that type of thinking).

White Hat thinking: facts and information

White Hat thinking is all about gathering and acknowledging facts and information. This is cold, rational thinking (hence the white hat!). Questions that you might ask yourself and your team:

  • What do we already know?
  • What’s missing from our knowledge base?
  • What more de we need to learn?
  • What questions should we ask?

White Hat thinking is good to use at the start of a session as a foundation of knowledge.

As you do so you can also distinguish between ‘checked facts’ and ‘unchecked facts’ to bring a further level of rigor your thinking. 

Red Hat thinking: feelings

Red Hat thinking is all about acknowledging feelings and emotions. This is rare in a business environment, and incredibly useful. We may believe we’re rational beings, but much of our behavior is guided by emotion, and it’s helpful to explore those emotions.

Questions that you might ask yourself and your team:

  • How are you feeling about this topic?
  • What you’re describing are not emotions, how are you really feeling?
  • When you say [emotion or feeling], could you be a bit more specific?

Red Hat thinking gives people the opportunity to express thoughts that don’t have to be justified. They’re sharing their hunches, intuition, emotions, and feelings. This is not natural for most people in a work environment, and you may have to stay with this Red Hat thinking for a little while to get any results.

To help, consider using a Post-It note activity, or a projective technique such as a picture-sort. Here’s more on facilitation techniques.

It can also be helpful to use a feelings chart as a resource too. It will help you get beyond very generic “I’m happy” type of statements.

For emotive topics this Red Hat thinking is useful at the start of a session. It allows people to ‘blow off steam’ before they refocus on the other thinking hats. (For very contentious topics, it’s sometime best to run this as a separate session, or at least schedule a break after the Red Hat thinking!).

Red Hat thinking also gives people permission to raise emotive points through-out a discussion:

Just putting my Red Hat on for a moment, I feel that the timelines we’ve been given are unrealistic, we’re once again being asked to do the impossible, it’s just not fair!

And finally, another use of Red Hat thinking is as a wrap-up: “Great work, really productive discussion, as we wrap up this discussion lets just put our Red Hat on, how are we feeling about this?”.

Green Hat thinking: creativity

Great Hat thinking is all about opportunities, ideas, and growth (hence, Green!). With your green hat on you can use specific creative tools such as brainstorming and other simple creative thinking techniques.

You can also use projective questioning techniques to encourage the expansive thinking required. Examples might be:

  • If we had to have a solution by the end of the week, what would we do?
  • If we had unlimited resources what would we do?
  • If we had our CEO in the room, what would they tell us to do?
  • What would [key competitor] do?

Aim to generate lots of ideas, from which you can select the best.

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. Emile Chartier

Green Hat thinking can be used early on in a discussion or workshop to generate alternatives to explore.

Blue Hat thinking: process

The Blue Hat helps you to manage the process of thinking. It’s typical for yourself, as a manager or facilitator, to be putting on the Blue Hat through-out the discussion.

You will be using Blue Hat thinking when you:

  • Agree or set objectives
  • Keep the discussion on track
  • Select the most appropriate Hat to put on next
  • Summarize and conclude the discussion

Anyone can ‘put on the Blue Hat’ too, and you may also consider delegating or nominating a participant to use the Blue Hat through-out the session.

Yellow Hat thinking: optimism

Yellow Hat thinking is all about being bright and optimistic. It’s about seeing benefits, being constructive, exploring solutions (this may not be the most natural hat for some people to wear!).

Questions that you might ask yourself and your team:

  • How will we benefit from this?
  • How will this improve our future?
  • How does this move us closer to our vision?
  • What are the BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals!) that we should set ourselves?

The Yellow Hat is the natural opposite of the Black hat and they can be used in sequence to explore different perspectives.  

Black Hat thinking: risks / problems

Black Hat thinking comes naturally to most of us, (we’re hardwired to be alert to risks and threats!). Black Hat thinking is perfect for premortems (nice to make that connection!).

This type of thinking also gives us the opportunity to reflect on possible cognitive biases that may be influencing or decision-making.

Black Hat thinking is evaluative. Good questions to ask include:

  • Have we stayed true to the goals we set ourselves? (This could be a Blue Hat question too.)
  • Is what we’re suggesting possible?
  • Does it fit with our ethics and values?
  • What biases might be influencing us?
  • What are the risks and issues that we’ll face?

It’s important to be deliberate about your Black Hat thinking. Wear the Black Hat and apply this thinking, and when you put other hats on, embrace them fully and be mindful to ensure that your Black Hat thinking doesn’t creep back in!

The Six Thinking Hats – applications

There are 3 main ways that you can apply Six Thinking Hats.

Deciding who should be in the room

We all have different preferences and strengths. Some of us are more naturally Green Hat thinkers, some of are more naturally Black Hat thinkers. One way of using Six Thinking Hats is to ensure you have the right balance of people in the room to address the topic at hand.

For example, if you’re at an early stage in a project and you need ideas, make sure your Green Hat thinkers are available to meet!

As an informal tool in team discussions

The different perspectives that the Six Thinking Hats methodology provides are useful in any workplace conversation. You don’t have to reference the methodology or refer to the hats, just use and encourage the different types of thinking (using the questions above).

As a specific methodology in a meeting or workshop

Use the methodology as part of a workshop, or engage a De Bono Group consultant. Think about how you might have some fun with the methodology. Face-to-face you might actually bring in some hats, or at least have some colored pictures to work with, virtually you might play around with your backgrounds to (use your Green Hat thinking to come up with other alternatives!).

As part of your workplace culture

Ultimately, the Six Thinking Hats can be a useful addition to your workplace culture. And you’ll know you’ve achieved this when your team start referring to the hats spontaneously (or at least the different types of thinking).

How to begin applying the Six Thinking Hats method with your team

There are two possible routes to begin applying the Six Thinking Hats with your team:

Big Bang

Just jump right in. Brief your team on the Six Thinking Hats method. Select a problem or opportunity that would provide good practice. Apply the methodology to the task in hand, then keep using it as appropriate until it becomes an established method within your team.

Slowly, slowly

Use the different types of thinking yourself. Get comfortable with these different perspectives. When you’re discussing problems with your team, ask related questions. Perhaps focus on 2 or 3 of the thinking types:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What are the facts?
  • What reasons do we have to be optimistic?
  • What risk or problems can you see?

Once you’re comfortable, then introduce the model to your team. Have them practice using the model on a live issue that they’re facing. At your next team meeting, you could ask for feedback on the model and how they felt about using it.

If there’s some hesitancy, explain that they’ll get more value from the model the more they use it.

Then look for additional opportunities to embed the model as a way of working within the team.

You’ll soon see the benefits of greater clarity of thinking, a wider range of perspectives and better decisions!