Six Thinking Hats

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We've all heard the saying “Death by meetings” and probably have personally experienced a few of those unending and what can feel like unproductive meetings. What if you could redefine and refocus, making your meetings more not only more effective but shorter? 

Death by Meeting

I could give you so many examples of how this has happened in my own life. Sadly, many of them were my fault too, because I was chairing these nightmare meetings. I remember one in particular though; it was a board meeting — and yes, I was chairing it — and we discussed for over 2 hours which photocopier we should buy. After 2 hours of discussion, it suddenly dawned on me that no one in the room was ever going to use the photocopier! Talk about inefficient and a complete waste of time. This all happened because we lost our purpose and I have to admit, it was all my fault. I went to work right after that meeting to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff!    

Focus Perspectives

Edward De Bono’s book “Six Thinking Hats” really helped us focus our meetings to become more productive in less time.

I have sat through many meetings where the discussions turn to arguments because each person attending had a different set of strengths and perspectives. De Bono recognized that tendency and found a simple, yet effective way to get everyone to focus on the same things, from the same perspectives, at the same time, therefore making the meeting discussion much more effective and the meetings much shorter!

It is about shifting the way we think not only in meetings but when solving problems or taking advantage of opportunities… even on a personal basis. De Bono discusses 6 differently coloured hats: Blue, White, Green, Red, Yellow and Black.  All six are “thinking hats" and to bring value to a meeting, everyone needs to develop the ability to think all six ways. Let's review.

Blue Hat

The blue hat represents overview thinking. Blue is the colour of the sky and so is a reminder of big picture thinking. It is generally used at the beginning of meetings to give an overview of what we are going to talk about in the meeting. It is also used at the conclusion to recap all that was discussed.

White Hat

The white hat is all about the cold, hard facts. White is the colour of paper and so represents the details and facts needed in the meeting. It has no emotion or opinion attached to it, just facts.

Green Hat

The creative hat. Green is the colour of grass and spring, and represents new and fresh. The Green hat is for creative thinking. It is for new ideas. It is not for “how” thinking but instead used for brainstorming and creativity. 

Black Hat

Black is for negative thinking. It is the time when the team talks about why the ideas might not work. Or what dangers could arise if we proceeded with the idea. It is for risk assessment.

Red Hat

Red represents emotional thinking. Red is the colour of love and anger and so the Red hat is used to vent emotions and feelings on a subject, either positive or negative. It is the opportunity to just talk about how you feel and doesn’t need to be backed up with facts, figures or even justifying why you feel a certain way.

Yellow Hat

The yellow hat represents the positive, sunny side of thinking. It is when everyone weighs in on why this idea will work and is only used to discuss the positive outlook of the topic. It is possibilities and does not include the word “but”.

Applying the Six Hats

The purpose of using the hats in a meeting is to practice “parallel thinking” as a team.

Some people are naturally the “sunny side of things” people, and others naturally think cautiously and are always looking for the dangers, while others are more emotional thinkers and still others naturally study the facts and like rational thinking. The problem is when you get all of those people in the same room to discuss one idea, each person brings their natural slant to the discussion which can lead to very time consuming arguments and potentially hurt feelings.

We illustrated this with a very large model of a house during a recent staff meeting.  The house represented a different side of a problem or opportunity.  For the workshop, each side of the house was different.  One side was immaculate, another was in shambles, another was void of any architectural elements, neither windows nor doors and the other was very outdated.  We imagined a different person looking at only one side of the house and discussing it from their view point.  As no one could see all four sides of the house, each person would argue from their point of view.  The discussion would result in a stand still.   

The six thinking hat discussion forces everyone, at the same time, to think from only one perspective — together! This gives everyone the opportunity to weigh in on each part of the discussion, even on those that are naturally outside of their strength zone.

Making it Work

How do the six hats function in a typical meeting? Well, imagine a meeting in which we could be creative — thinking green hat — without the interruptions of the “how could we ever pull that off?” questions. What if everyone could weigh in with creative ideas, more than just the naturally creative people on your team? We would get more buy in and I guarantee more ideas! Now contrast that; what if we all thought together about the dangers of proceeding ahead with an ambitious plan. Now, those who are naturally cautious, wouldn’t stay silent because they were afraid of being seen as negative and at the same time the naturally optimistic people would be forced to see the potential dangers. This would save us from blindly launching something that could be potentially disastrous for the organization, all because we took the time to do some “black hat” thinking all together as a team.

Choosing Hats

You do not need to use all six hats at every meeting. In fact, I think it is very rare when you would use all six in one meeting. Sometimes I think it is better to break it up and have separate meetings. For example; we have found it more efficient to have separate meetings for our creative team and for our production team. Combining them, causes the meetings to be too long and not as focused. We like having unbarred creative brainstorming sessions where we can hear all kinds of crazy ideas without fear of those ideas being shut down in the same meeting. And we have found it better to have our production meetings focused on “how we can pull this off” without being side railed by bunny trails.

Assign a Facilitator

The facilitator's job is to encourage responses from each team member and guide the meeting to stay on point. I’ve discovered in meetings I’ve facilitated that everyone naturally slides into their strength zone and wants to speak up immediately, when something comes to mind. For example, the natural green hat thinkers, will want to weigh in with a great idea when the team is supposed to be discussing “black hat” things. Or vice versa. If the facilitator allows this then it won’t be long and we will default into long, emotional discussions again — all standing on our side of the house. To avoid this, I’ve found it is much more productive to give an agenda ahead of time with the different coloured hats represented to help keep people on topic and accountable to the topic. 

Create a Thinking Agenda

Sending out an agenda with the coloured hats clearly defined allows everyone to prepare some of their most honest thoughts ahead of time, knowing that they will be able to weigh in those thoughts at some point in the meeting and not derail the meeting because they just had something to get off their chest.

Note; the blue hat is the one hat that should be included in every meeting, because it is the overview guide of the what happens next and the recap of all that was discussed. Blue Hat thinking can help prevent the team from running off on a tangent ahead of time as it gives the general overview and expectations of the meeting before you even begin. 

Implementing this thinking process eliminates everyone bringing only their preferred thinking style to a meeting. I think that is probably the biggest benefit to the whole thing. On every team we can pigeon hole people as certain types of thinkers and not call on them to think differently than that, but with the six hats model, I have been amazed at how some team members have weighed in outside of their natural bend and have seen the benefits of their fresh ideas and thoughts.

Practical Application in the Long Term.

Like anything, you have to take the concept and make it work for you, with your team, in your environment. Not every meeting needs to be run with the six hats and not every moment of every meeting needs to fall into one of the six hat categories, but when you need your team to all get on the same page or when you sense the meeting is drifting from its intended focus, you can easily rally it back by saying something like, “we need some fresh ideas, let’s do some green hat thinking right now.”

Apply it Personally

This concept is also valuable on a personal level.  There is a significant advantage in taking yourself through the use of the six thinking habits to solve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity.  

Like everyone, I have a natural bend in thinking. I tend to be more visionary — green / yellow hat thinking — instead of black, and more white instead of red. So, when I am thinking through an idea, I force myself to think through all six hats to come to a more well rounded decision. 

A Real World Example

With the Bible College starting here in Lethbridge this September, we’ve done a lot Six Hat thinking.  The Blue Hat thinking helped our team see the scope of all that we have to know and determine.  Then thinking creatively; Green Hat thinking, helped us go outside the norm and think beyond the obvious limitations.  

Black Hat thinking, while outside myself and Gene's (our Victory Bible College Dean) natural thinking styles, is proving to be a valuable asset. Taking the time to actually 'go there' in your mind has resulted in us avoiding some big pitfalls. I like how King Solomon said it, when he said, “a wise man will see trouble coming and avoid it.” The key is to see trouble before it comes and then take the steps necessary to avoid that trouble. That’s the benefit of black hat thinking.

By early summer, the Yellow Hat, will become a necessity as we grind to the finish line all the concepts for making the college a great educational and spiritual tool for our students. Which is good, because you don’t want to park in black hat thinking or else you will paralyze yourself from moving forward. Eventually you need to focus on the positive and move ahead, excited about what’s ahead of you.

Big Benefits

Six Thinking Hats has become my mode of operation in every facet of my thinking but eventually you may hit roadblocks that will prevent you from moving forward with this concept throughout the numerous meetings you attend every week.

One roadblock for me is to become so bogged down with the rules of the six hats thinking that we don’t allow meetings to flow naturally. It’s the big picture purpose of the six hats that I think has the biggest benefit and that is to get all of us on the same page at the same time.

Jesus was very explicit in explaining how he saw inefficiency. Just think on the parable of the talents. He called maintenance; wicked and lazy! We need to be efficient in the church and use our meetings on purpose for the overall purpose or we can get so bogged down in meetings that we stop being effective in our mission…

To reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.