Put on the Six Thinking Hats

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Getting the best ideas to flow freely often requires becoming a character that is immune from judgment. At some point in our childhood, most of us had an experience where someone laughed at one of our ideas, forever scarring us. As a response, a lot of us (myself included) hesitate to offer ideas for fear of being judged. Part of this exercise, known as the six thinking hats, is becoming a character by way of being assigned a “hat.” By playing the part you’re assigned, you’re free from being judged personally (it’s your job to play the role).

Additionally, in an environment where employees are not allowed to be critical of a manager’s or executive’s idea, the business is missing out on an opportunity for better ideas. Using these hats to force employees to have ideas and criticize other ideas opens up the room to new potential. So, here are the six thinking hats, originally conceived of by Edward de Bono.

  1. White hat (I prefer orange. More on that later): If you’re wearing the white hat, your job is to focus on available data. If the topic at hand is expanding your business to a new geography, you’d be responsible for looking at relevant data. Maybe that’s demographics of the proposed geo(s), climate, surroundings, resource availability, etc. Regardless of your job title or day-to-day work, your job in the meeting is to be the data perspective. Point out what is known, unknown, and look for data-backed trends.
  2. Red hat: This is the emotional perspective. Try to look at the topic through the lens of varying emotions. Could the topic make someone angry? Sad? Elated? What might the response of the public be if your company announced a decision surrounding the topic at hand? What emotions will customers feel? Again, using a new geographical expansion as the example, would there be an emotional reaction to going to a particular area? If so, what?
  3. Black hat: This is the negative-Nancy hat. The person wearing this hat is specifically looking for reasons the idea at hand will fail. This person needs to test every assumption, poke holes in all the reasoning, and ultimately is trying to kill the idea. If the idea withstands a beating, it’ll be much more thought out relative to there being no opposition. This hat also provides a bit of protection in an office where no one will say no to a manager – it has to be someone’s job to address the consequences of a particular plan.
  4. Yellow hat: The opposite of the black hat. The wearer of the yellow hat is looking to find every reason an idea would work. If the black hat is the devil on your shoulder, the yellow hat is the angel (or other good natured divine being of your choice). This role can even be a bit goofy as the wearer looks for any reason to say yes to something.
  5. Green hat: This is arguably the hardest hat to wear. The green hat is all about creativity and identifying as many alternatives as possible. No judgment can be levied at the green hat wearer. Ideas will spark more ideas which may lead to the eventual best idea. If someone wearing the green hat cannot come up with 10 alternative ideas, encourage them to come up with 20. By lowering the bar for an idea, one’s anxiety about having good ideas will fade away, thereby allowing for more free flowing ideas.
  6. Blue hat: The operations, process, and next steps advocate. The person wearing the blue hat is responsible for running the meeting. They’re responsible for determining a concrete action plan. If the meeting gets to a standstill, the blue hat points out who should chime in next. Maybe calling for more ideas from the green hat, or maybe asking for one more reason the topic at hand is a good idea. When an actionable step is identified, the blue hat is responsible for making a note of it and assigning it to the relevant party.

To implement this, assign “hats” to different team members at the beginning of a meeting. Use real hats, colored paper, name tags, or colored markers to assign the roles. Reusable pieces of paper with descriptions of the roles should be passed out along with the hat assignment. The reason this author prefers an orange hat to a white hat is functional. It’s hard to write on a white board with a white marker. So, if a white board is involved, turn the white hat into another color.

Note, it’s completely possible to use the six thinking hats with fewer than six people. An individual can wear multiple hats and switch from one perspective to another.

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