Problem Solving with Six Thinking Hats

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Have you ever wondered how a room full of intelligent, talented people can often get bogged down by personalities and individual agendas? Instead of constructively working together toward a solution, people often get tied up in their personal need for attention or the compulsion to be seen as competent, no matter what. Or perhaps progress is stunted by the perpetual pessimists who know they can’t be blamed for failure if they never support an idea.

From image by Nelly Ghazaryan, Wikimedia Commons

One useful tool for managing group discussions to take advantage of everyone’s unique intelligence and experience (without stumbling over their egos), is the Six Thinking Hats® method pioneered by Edward de Bono. The method works by allowing each member of a group to focus on one type of thinking at a time, rather than trying to be critical, creative, logical, intuitive, etc. at the same time. By removing much of the confusion from the thinking process and isolating personal agendas, groups can arrive at valid solutions more efficiently and with less conflict.

Parallel Thinking

De Bono based his method on the concept of parallel thinking.

“The essence of parallel thinking is that at any moment everyone is looking in the same direction—but the direction can be changed. “

For example, if four people are each looking at one side of a large house and discussing it via telephone, they fail to come to agreement on the particulars of the house because each sees something completely different. On the other hand, if the house were examined using a parallel thinking approach, all four people would look at each side in turn, together, and document what they see collectively. This is how the Six Thinking Hats work. Each colored hat represents a specific mode of thinking. When asked to “wear” a particular hat, everyone must focus exclusively on the type of thinking and discussion required of that hat.  

What are the Six Hats?

The Six Thinking Hats method helps group members separate their thinking into clear functions and roles that can help them navigate complex group discussion for more effective problem solving. The process of donning and switching focus as they switch "hats" allows group members to easily redirect the discussion as required. Here is a brief description of each of the six hats.[1]

White Hat: The White Hat calls for team members to discover and all the information that is known or needed. "The facts, just the facts."

Yellow Hat: The Yellow Hat symbolizes brightness and optimism. When wearing this hat, group participants would explore only the positives of the situation at hand and focus on probing for value and benefit.

Black Hat: The Black Hat represents judgment. This is the devil's advocate or risk manager thinking mode. When wearing the black hat, everyone focuses on thinking about why something may not work. In this mode, the objective is to spot the difficulties and dangers. This hat is a powerful tool in the process, but can create problems if too much of any discussion takes place under the black hat.

Red Hat: The Red Hat signifies feelings, hunches and intuition. This hat gives everyone the opportunity to express emotions and feelings about the situation under discussion. Team members can also share their fears, likes, dislikes, loves, and hates when wearing this hat.

Green Hat: The Green Hat represents creativity, providing focused conversation to explore the possibilities, alternatives, and new ideas inherent in the discussion. The Green Hat mode offers everyone in the group an opportunity to express new concepts and new perceptions.

Blue Hat: The Blue Hat functions a little differently than the others. It is an overarching thinking mode that is used to manage the thinking process and keep everyone on track. It functions as the control mechanism that ensures the Six Thinking Hats® guidelines are observed.

In the conclusion of his book, Six Thinking Hats, de Bono states: “The biggest enemy of thinking is complexity, for that leads to confusion. When thinking is clear and simple, it becomes more enjoyable and more effective.”  This straight forward parallel thinking process may be just the tool your team needs to reduce conflict and accelerate problem solving capacity.


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[1] Based on descriptions provided by The de Bono Group, Six Thinking Hats.

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