Six Thinking Hats

Definition of Six Thinking Hats[1]

The Six Thinking Hats® is a role-playing model presented by Edward de Bono in 1986. It serves as a team-based problem-solving and brainstorming technique that can be used to explore problems and solutions and uncover ideas and options that might otherwise be overlooked by a homogeneous thinking group.

The basic premise hinges upon the idea that most people think and reason in a specific way based on their personality type. This means that a more emotional person may generate ideas differently than a more analytical person, and vice-versa. Similarly, a pessimist will approach a situation very differently than an optimist.

Edward de Bono identified 6 types of one-dimensional personalities or “Thinking Hats”. While the average person will often imbue qualities from several of these 6 types, the goal of the Six Thinking Hat model is to assign each member of the team a different, one-dimensional “Thinking Hat” for the duration of the problem-solving or brainstorming session.

The Six Thinking Hats of De Bono[2]

De Bono suggests dividing research into 6 distinct phases. To imagine his method, the 6 phases are represented by hats of different colors, each of which symbolizes a method of thinking. The method of 6 hats is a method of parallel thinking. Each "Thinking Hat" is a different style of thinking. These are explained below:

Six Thinking Hats Model
source: FGC Consulting

  • White Hat: This is the rational hat. With this thinking hat, you focus on the available data. Look at the information that you have, analyze past trends, and see what you can learn from them. Look for gaps in your knowledge, and try to either fill them or take account of them. The white hat thinks information. It is the color of neutrality and objectivity.
  • Red Hat: The Red hat thinks to feel. It is the emotional hat. Considering the problems using intuition, emotions, and instinctive reactions. It is the color of anger, rage, and emotions. You are the opposite of impartial, objective information. "Wearing" the Red Hat, you look at problems using your intuition, gut reaction, and emotion. Also, think about how others could react emotionally. Try to understand the responses of people who do not fully know your reasoning.
  • Black Hat: This is the pessimistic hat. Looking at all the negative aspects of the decision. Looking caution, danger. You try to see why it will not work. Looking weaknesses. The Black hat thinks caution. It is a gloomy and negative color. Using Black Hat thinking, look at a decision's potentially negative outcomes. Look at it cautiously and defensively. Try to see why it might not work. This is important because it highlights the weak points in a plan. It allows you to eliminate them, alter them, or prepare contingency plans to counter them. Black Hat thinking helps to make your plans "tougher" and more resilient. It can also help you to spot fatal flaws and risks before you embark on a course of action. It's one of the real benefits of this model, as many successful people get so used to thinking positively that they often cannot see problems in advance. This leaves them under-prepared for difficulties.
  • Yellow Hat: This is the optimistic hat. This hat helps you to think positively. It is the optimistic viewpoint that helps you to see all the benefits of the decision and the value in it. Yellow Hat thinking helps you to keep going when everything looks gloomy and difficult. The Yellow hat thinks advantage. It is a sunny and positive color. You consider all the benefits of the decision and their value. You are constructive.
  • Green Hat: It is a creative hat. You strive to find creative solutions, you give free rein to your imagination. You do not criticize the ideas. You try to fetch beyond what is known. The Green hat thinks alternative. This is the color of grass, vegetation, and fertility. The Green Hat represents creativity. This is where you develop creative solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas. (You can explore a range of creativity tools to help you.)
  • Blue Hat: This is the controller hat. In a meeting, he’s the person presiding. He controls the process. He calls on the group to change hats. This is the conductor. The Blue hat thinks coordination. It is the color of heaven which is above all things. This hat represents process control. It's the hat worn by people chairing meetings, for example. When facing difficulties because ideas are running dry, they may direct activity into Green Hat thinking. When contingency plans are needed, they will ask for Black Hat thinking.
  • The White Hat: This is the rational hat. You focus on practical and available data. You don’t interpret. These are facts, figures, and information. The White hat thinks information. It is the color of neutrality and objectivity. You focus on practical and available data. You don’t interpret. These are facts, figures, and information.

The colored hats are used as metaphors for the various states of mind. Switching to a certain type of thinking is symbolized by wearing a colored hat, literally or metaphorically. These six thinking hats metaphors provide a more complete and comprehensive segregation of the types of thinking than the prejudices that are inherent to the immediate thoughts of people. All these thinking hats help people to think more deeply about a certain topic.

Parallel Thinking[3]

In ordinary and unstructured thinking, this method seems unfocused. The thinker moves from critical thinking to neutrality, to optimism, etcetera, without structure or strategy. The process of the six thinking hats introduces the process of parallel thinking. Many people are used to ordinary thinking and they unconsciously navigate on their own habits. Sometimes these are effective and sometimes they are not. What is certain is that when people think in a group using their individual thoughts, they often fail to come to an agreement. As a consequence, there are no discussions.

The power of the ego and the identified preference for black hat-thinking can lead to disastrous meetings. Even with courtesy and good manners and clear common objectives in cooperative thinking activities, people have a natural tendency for the so-called “spaghetti-thinking” in which one person is thinking about the advantages whereas another is considering the facts and so on. Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats prevent this, so that everybody shares each other’s opinions about the problems, advantages, and facts, reducing distraction and supporting thought cross-pollination. This will be accomplished because everyone will put on a hat together, for instance, the white hat. After the attendants have expressed their thoughts in a round of discussion, they will put on the next hat. In this way, all the attendants will think in the same way at the same time. The only exception is the facilitator, who will tend to keep the blue hat to ensure that the discussion will progress effectively.

Strategies and Programs[4]

After the six types of thinking have been identified, different programs can be created. These are sequences of hats that structure the thinking process towards a clear goal. A number of these goals have been included in the materials that support the franchise training of the six thinking hats method, however, it is often necessary to adapt these for individual purposes. Sequences always begin and end with a blue hat, the group agrees on how they will think together, then they do the thinking and finally, they evaluate the outcomes of the thinking process and what to do next. Sequences (and indeed hats) may also be used by individuals who work alone or in groups. The following division can be made:

  • Initial Ideas – Blue, White, Green
  • Choosing between alternatives – Blue, White, Green, Yellow, Black, Red
  • Identification of solutions – Blue, White, Black, Green
  • Fast Feedback – Blue, Black, Green, White
  • Strategic planning – Blue, Yellow, Black, White
  • Process improvement – Blue, White, Yellow, Black, Green, Red
  • Problem-solving – Blue, White, Green, Red, Yellow, Black
  • Performance assessment – Blue, Red, White, Yellow, Black, Green

Underlying Principles of Six Thinking Hats[5]

The premise of the method is that the human brain thinks in a number of distinct ways which can be deliberately challenged, and hence planned for use in a structured way allowing one to develop tactics for thinking about particular issues. De Bono identifies six distinct directions in which the brain can be challenged. In each of these directions, the brain will identify and bring into conscious thought certain aspects of issues being considered (e.g. gut instinct, pessimistic judgment, neutral facts). None of these directions is a completely natural way of thinking, but rather how some of us already represent the results of our thinking.

Since the hats do not represent natural modes of thinking, each hat must be used for a limited time only. Also, some will feel that using the hats is unnatural, uncomfortable, or even counterproductive and against their better judgment.

A compelling example presented is sensitivity to "mismatch" stimuli. This is presented as a valuable survival instinct, because, in the natural world: the thing that is out of the ordinary may well be dangerous. This model is identified as the root of negative judgment and critical thinking.

Colored hats are used as metaphors for each direction. Switching to a direction is symbolized by the act of putting on a colored hat, either literally or metaphorically. This metaphor of using an imaginary hat or cap as a symbol for a different thinking direction was first mentioned by De Bono as early as 1971 in his book "Lateral Thinking for Management" when describing a brainstorming framework. These metaphors allow for more complete and elaborate segregation of the thinking directions. The six thinking hats indicate problems and solutions to an idea the thinker may come up with.

Similarly, "The Five Stages of Thinking" method—a set of tools corresponding to all six thinking hats—first appears in his CoRT Thinking Program in 1973:

6 Thinking Hats

The Importance of Six Thinking Hats Model[6]

Using Six Thinking Hats®, you and your team will learn how to use a disciplined process which will

  • Use Parallel Thinking as a group or team to generate more, better ideas and solutions
  • Make meetings much shorter and more productive
  • Reduce conflict among team members or meeting participants
  • Stimulate innovation by generating more and better ideas quickly
  • Create dynamic, results-oriented meetings that make people want to participate
  • Go beyond the obvious to discover effective alternate solutions
  • Spot opportunities where others see only problems
  • Think clearly and objectively
  • View problems from new and unusual angles
  • Make thorough evaluations
  • See all sides of a situation
  • Keep egos and “turf protection” in check
  • Achieve significant and meaningful results in a less time

Significant Applications for the Parallel Thinking Process of Six Thinking Hats

  • Leadership Development
  • Team Productivity, Alignment, and Communication
  • Creative and innovative thinking
  • Meeting leadership and decision making
  • Product and Process Improvement, and Project Management
  • Critical, Analytical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  • Organizational Change/Performance
  • Wherever High-Performance Thinking and Action is needed

The Steps in the Six Thinking Hats Process[7]

  • Considering the topic, Insight or Trend consciously adopt the wearing of a hat
    • White Hat: examine your data, fill gaps in your knowledge
    • Red Hat: use emotion and gut feel to understand your own and possible responses from other people
    • Black Hat: critique all the potential downsides, flaws, and risks
    • Yellow Hat: think positively and creatively about ideas and solutions
    • Green Hat: develop creative solutions without critiquing at this stage
    • Blue Hat: check that the right hat is being worn and that people are focused on it
  • Avoid criticizing others' ideas or censoring people
  • Listen to and build off of others' ideas
  • Generate lots of ideas and allow the session to free-wheel
  • Don't allow discussion or questioning though light clarification of an idea may be helpful at this stage
  • Sort your ideas into priority order or a logical order
  • Capture your most exciting idea and biggest fear
  • Look for breakthrough innovations, incremental innovations, new venture innovations, and new business models
  • Determine the fixed factors (almost certain hard trends) that will inform your strategic response: slow-changing phenomena e.g. demographic shifts, constrained situations e.g. resource limits, in the pipeline e.g. aging of baby boomers, inevitable collisions e.g. climate change arguments.
  • Capture variable factors: critical uncertainties i.e. variables, soft trends, and potential surprises. Both these and the fixed elements will be key to creating scenarios and examining potential future paradigm shifts.
  • Capture unique insight into new ways of seeing that can be utilized by the organization. What are the advantages and disadvantages?
  • What conclusions can we draw from the exercise(s)?
    • How might the future be different?
    • How does A affect B?
    • What is likely to remain the same or change significantly?
    • What are the likely outcomes?
    • What and who will likely shape our future?
    • Where could we be most affected by the change?
    • What might we do about it?
    • What don't we know that we need to know?
    • What should we do now, today?
    • Why do we care?
    • When should we aim to meet on this?
  • Finish by noting your next steps. The next steps could include a further round of iteration, a recommendation on how to get the answers, or the use of other research and methods such as 'Starburst' to create more vantage points on the issue. Repeat the exercise from a different perspective e.g., taking a negative view or an unusual position, or from the viewpoint of another stakeholder.

Example of Six Hat Thinking[8]

The directors of a property company are considering whether they should build a new office block. The economy is doing well, and the vacant office spaces in their city are being snapped up. As part of their decision-making process, they adopt the Six Thinking Hats technique.

Wearing the White Hat, they analyze the data that they have. They can see that the amount of available office space in their city is dwindling, and they calculate that, by the time a new office block would be completed, existing space will be in extremely short supply. They also note that the economic outlook is good, and steady growth is predicted to continue.

Thinking with a Red Hat, some of the directors say that the proposed building looks ugly and gloomy. They worry that people would find it an oppressive or uninspiring place to work.

When they think about Black Hat, they wonder whether the economic forecast could be wrong. The economy may be about to experience a downturn, in which case the building could sit empty or only partially occupied for a long time. If the building is unattractive, then companies will choose to work in other, more attractive premises.

Wearing the positive Yellow Hat, however, the directors know that, if the economy holds up and their projections are correct, the company stands to make a healthy profit. If they are lucky, maybe they could sell the building before the next downturn, or rent to tenants on long-term leases that will last through any recession.

With Green Hat thinking, they consider whether they should redesign the building to make it more appealing. Perhaps they could build prestige offices that people would want to rent in any economic climate. Alternatively, maybe they should invest the money in the short term, then buy up property at a lower cost when the next downturn happens.

The chairman of the meeting wears the Blue Hat to keep the discussion moving and ideas flowing, encouraging the other directors to switch their thinking between the different perspectives.

Having examined their options from numerous viewpoints, the directors have a much more detailed picture of possible outcomes and can make their decision accordingly.

Is the Six Thinking Hats approach just for business?[9]

Not at all. It was used to help millions of people after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Relief planners in Sri Lanka after the tsunami used the Six Hats approach to plan and implement reconstruction efforts more effectively. The method was used to generate a shared sense of the major issues in the reconstruction process. It took only twelve hours to get the plan ready and two days to hammer out a detailed and sustainable solution. The next time your team is faced with a problem you’re not sure how to solve, try addressing it from the perspective of the Six Thinking Hats. This can also be done as an individual. Practice this approach on a regular basis, noting the insights you generate as a result. It will help you see situations from multiple perspectives and develop your creative thinking capabilities.

See Also