Methods: Six Thinking Hats

Implementing structured idea processing sessions directs individuals and teams to innovative solutions. Brainstorming is one of the most important and widely used means to innovate. However, brainstorming sessions are often not as productive as expected due to ego clashes, arguments and lack of focus. A leader in creative thinking, Edward DeBono, developed the Six Thinking Hats technique that overcomes most of the pitfalls of regular brainstorming. The technique proposes and explains six directions (or hats) of thought. Wearing only one hat at any given point in time helps an individual (or a team) focus on various aspects of the topic of discussion in a non-confrontational manner, thereby creating considerable synergy and enabling the brainstorming to be much more fruitful and productive. Furthermore, the use of lateral thinking triggers and catalyzes creative thinking and expands the scope of both the problem, as well as the solutions generated.

Why Six Thinking Hats?

Human brains think along multiple directions at the same time. This way of thinking is extremely efficient when quick decisions need to be made. The brain reduces the complexity of data through fuzzy logic or “bucketization.” However, when a problem or issue needs to be thought through in detail, the brain needs to resist fixing on a pattern too quickly. This is notoriously difficult to achieve, even at an individual level. In a team brainstorming session, this problem worsens. Solutions can be quickly jumped to even while the problem is not fully understood, ideas can be shot down even before being fully developed and solutions can be pointed out as infeasible without the opportunity to consider them.DeBono proposed the separation of directions of thought into the six thinking hats. By forcing one or more brains to think along one direction at one time, most collisions are avoided and synergy is considerably increased. The technique also encourages the use of lateral thinking approaches leading to increased brainstorming productivity.

The Hats

There are six distinct “hats,” one for each direction of thought.sixhats-1 copy

White Hat (Data, Facts and Figures)

While wearing the white hat, all available data is put forth. Data can be both within (and outside) the scope of the discussion, effectively deferring judgment of data. There is a focus on neutral facts and figures. Participants can include opinions of others, where the opinion becomes the fact irrespective of whether the opinion is believed to be accurate or not. It is important to be specific about data to reduce ambiguity as much as possible. Overall, the objective is to facilitate a deeper understanding of the breadth and depth of the relevant issue with the neutral deposition of data on the table.

Red Hat (Feelings and Emotions)

The red hat is the hat of feelings and emotions. Emotions can be positive (happiness, joy, wonder, enthusiasm, hope, expectation), negative (anger, disappointment, mental-blocks, jealousy, cynicism) or neutral (intuition, complex emotional judgment, curiosity). It is important to be free from obligations to effectively wear the red hat. The objectives of the red hat are to lend credibility to “emotional” thinking, help feelings surface (rather than remain hidden yet play a major part in the discussion) and free the participants from having to justify emotions, complex judgment or intuitive thoughts. This adds a new dimension to both problems and solutions.

Green Hat (Ideas)

The green hat is the hat of ideas. By removing judgment and feasibility analysis from the scope of the discussion, participants are free to generate crazy ideas that may not be immediately relevant or feasible. New ideas can be constructed from other ideas generated and pooled at the table. The setting is ripe for lateral “out-of-the-box” thinking. In the green hat phase, a team consisting of individuals from varying backgrounds, age groups, cultures and having different perspectives to the issue becomes a fantastic asset, rather than a liability, to brainstorming. The objective of the green hat is to generate as many (and as varied) ideas as possible.

Yellow Hat (Positivism)

This is the “be positive” hat. Positive aspects of the issue are stressed. A positive outlook toward problem solving is maintained. The focus is on “how-to-make-it-happen” rather than “how-this-may-not-work.” Ideas from the common pool (the ideas are now not tied to the individuals who generated them) are picked up for further development. The positive factors are noted. All possible positive effects of an idea are noted and discussed. The objective is to be positive about “making-things-happen” and understand all the benefits of various ideas.

Black Hat (Critical Judgment)

The black hat is the hat of caution and judgment. All constraints are noted down. The scope of the issue may be fine-tuned. Feasibility of ideas is evaluated. Pitfalls and shortcomings are identified. Problems and ideas are prioritized based on relevance or impact. A cautious approach is used. Participants can play the “devil’s advocate,” discuss worst-case scenarios and identify bottlenecks and weak links. The objective of this hat is to critically evaluate and judge issues and ideas, and converge on a specific problem or solution areas.

Blue Hat (Control and Overview)

The blue hat controls the flow of the session – what hat to wear, when and for how long. The agenda and timelines are decided. There can be a discussion on the sequence of hats to be used. Typically, the controller of the session wears the blue hat to guide the session and ensure that all participants continue to wear one hat at a time. The blue hat is used to arbitrate and re-focus. The blue hat is also used to summarize and conclude.