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Leadership

The Six Thinking Hats, with Working Examples

Matthew Channell - Last Update: 12 Apr 2021

Contents

What is Six Thinking Hats?

Who is Using the Six Thinking Hats?

Why Use the Six Thinking Hats?

What are the Six Thinking Hats?

What Order Should the Six Thinking Hats be Used in?

How to Use the Six Thinking Hats in Practice

An Example of Six Hats in Action

 

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Matthew Channell

Commercial Director

Read about the author

 

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You: When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call?

Me: Dr Edward De Bono of course, and ask him about his six thinking hats…

Dr Edward De Bono was born on the 19th May 1933. De Bono was a Maltese physician, phycologist, author, and the inventor of ‘Lateral thinking’. In 1986 he wrote a book which he called "Six Thinking Hats"

Edward De Bono believes that:

the main difficulty of thinking is confusion, where we try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope and creativity all crowd in on us. It’s like juggling too many balls

To help alleviate this confusion he describes six different types of thinking, associating each with a different colour hat.

What is Six Thinking Hats?

Six hats thinking is a technique that helps individuals and teams look at problems and situations from a variety of perspectives. In essence, the six hats direct you on ‘how to think’ rather than ‘what to think’, which means it can be applied universally. 

As identified by De Bono it simplifies thinking by maintaining focus on one element at a time and allowing a change in thinking while minimising conflict between members in a group.

Some examples of problems where six thinking hats can be used include:

  • A coffee house is getting a growing number of complaints from customers as they are having to wait too long for their coffee – how can they solve this problem?
  • A car manufacturer has found that their quality department has a worsening absence record with several bouts of sickness from several staff – what’s happening and how can they improve the absence levels?

It’s not all problems you know, you can apply six hats to opportunities, some examples include:

  • A coffee house finds that there is a new coffee machine on the market that can make our coffee three times quicker than their current machines – should they buy it?
  • A car manufacturer has been approached by a company offering a new incentive programme for its employees, they promise that the programme will improve employee engagement levels – should they invest in the programme?

Who is Using the Six Thinking Hats?

The technique is being used worldwide, with examples from a whole host of industries and sectors; healthcare groups, financial institutions, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, and utilities are just a few of the industries using Six Thinking Hats.

Just some of the organisations using Six Thinking Hats include:

  • Prudential Insurance
  • Siemens who are said to have over 35 certified Six Hats instructors, working with employees throughout its European offices
  • Boeing is using it in the United States
  • Honeywell
  • Motorola
  • Fidelity Investments
  • National Semiconductor

Why Use the Six Thinking Hats?

The process can reduce meeting times, make them more productive and help improve the quality of decision making.

The beauty of the Edward De Bono’s hats is in their simplicity. They are easy to learn and implement in your own work and are a great tool for group collaboration and decision making.

The biggest benefits are often seen in team working and collaborative problem solving as they can empower diverse groups of people to work together with a common perspective in mind.

The hats promote parallel thinking, which De Bono posited as a productive alternative to adversarial thinking (otherwise known as debate). By defining the perspective for a group, the benefits are a reduction of negative conflict and encouraged co-operation.

For example, if a group is asked to consider a problem with one hat at a time, they are less likely to be in dispute than when they are thinking from all perspectives. This often shows up as one team member looking at all the negatives while another is being highly positive and looking for all the good points.

The focus brought by the hats can have a positive impact on the quality of thinking. Instead of the unfocussed to and fro we will all have experienced when exploring a complex problem.

If you use the Six Thinking Hats effectively in your business you will...

  • Create a productive atmosphere minimising counterproductive and negative behaviours that would otherwise lead to conflict between team members in the meeting environment.
  • Avoid protectionism and egos that may affect decision making
  • Create more productive and efficient meetings that are energised and highly focussed
  • Encourage innovation and empower people to challenge the status quo. People will start to see problems as opportunities, a much more positive outlook
  • Improve problem solving efficiency and effectiveness, by analysing problems from all perspectives and seeing beyond the obvious to find the right solution
  • Make thorough evaluations of problems for proper root cause analysis

To achieve the full benefits of six hats thinking you will need to understand the perspective that each hat represents.

What are the Six Thinking Hats?

A blue hat

Blue Hat - The blue hat is metaphorically worn by the individual chairing a meeting, controlling a team, or managing a situation. They will often provide the ground rules in the form of an agenda, goals and scope.

For example, project managers responsible for pulling together many elements to complete a project could be said to wear a Blue Hat! In managing a project, he or she would concern themselves with many issues such as:

  • What is the problem we are dealing with?
  • What are we trying to achieve in dealing with the problem?
  • What will be the benefits of solving this problem?
  • What is the best and most effective way to approach the problem?

 

A white hat

White Hat - The White hat is used at the beginning and end of a session. Used at the beginning to concentrate on the facts or data available. Used at the end of a session to question ideas derived from using the other hats.

A green hat

Green Hat - The green hat is used to encourage new and innovative ideas. Thinking outside the box where anything should be considered. No negative thinking or comment is allowed at this stage in the process.

A yellow hat

Yellow Hat - The yellow hat is the optimistic hat, used to consider the possible merits of ideas which may have been generated by the green hat process.

A red hat

Red Hat -This is the intuitive hat where feelings and emotions can be expressed, such as fears and dislikes. These feelings do not need to be justified they just identify gut feelings.

A black hat

Black Hat - The black hat is the negative but logical hat as it looks at possible solutions or ideas to determine if they may or may not work. Negativity without reason must be avoided as this is a red hat function. 

Black hat thinkers must apply critical thinking to the solutions identified, to explore and test their viability

What Order Should the Six Thinking Hats be Used in?

The six hats can be used in any order during a meeting or discussion. However, by using the hats in order you can direct a discussion in a more logical fashion. The order below will provide a flow for any meeting or discussion:

  1. Blue
  2. White
  3. Green
  4. Yellow
  5. Red
  6. Black

Even with this order in place a facilitator can reintroduce a hat that they feel is appropriate to the discussion. For example, it may be felt that the solutions identified using the green hat need to be interrogated, so participants can wear a white hat to dive into the facts around those solutions.

Here's a diagram of the typical Six Thinking Hats order: 

six thinking hats example

How to Use the Six Thinking Hats in Practice

There are many ways to apply the hats in an organisation, both for an individual and in groups. You can take any problem or situation and try these approaches:

In groups

    • Assign a group moderator and have them wear a blue hat. They should have a good understanding of De Bono’s work and set an agenda before facilitating a meeting
    • Put up a poster or provide cards for each of the hats telling participants what perspective they should be taking with each hat
    • Make sure participants have a means of recording their ideas, providing a clear way of showing which hat they were wearing at the time
    • Break a larger group into smaller sub-groups;

a) Assign each group with a particular hat to don in their approach to the situation or

b) Have groups consider the same perspective before moving on to the next

  • Consider rotating the hats between the groups to foster new ideas and get groups to consider the issue from various perspectives
  • Think about having groups or sub-groups wear one hat at a time. This can improve collaboration and help the team to work on one perspective at the same time

As an individual

  • When dealing with a problem use a template that has each hat along with a section for your notes
  • Work through the hats one at a time and make notes from each perspective
  • Try to wear one hat at a time and avoid jumping from one hat to another. This helps you keep a focus on one perspective without it being influenced by another

Some tips

  • You don’t have to use every hat, all the time – consider which ones are most applicable but remember that using the hats in order can help to structure your thoughts
  • You may focus on one or more hats at any one time, but keep in mind that doing so can create conflict in thinking. The hats are better used one at a time
  • You can reintroduce hats as and when needed, to provide more information in relation to new ideas or findings. In this sense, the process is iterative. 

An Example of Six Hats in Action

A coffee mug and red hat with the test

To see how you might use the six hats in your own work, let us consider one of the examples mentioned already.

“A coffee house (let’s call them ‘coffee stop’) is getting a growing number of complaints from customers as they are having to wait too long for their coffee – how can they solve this problem?”

Joe, the current store manager has a team of eight people who work in a variety of roles. As the shop is closed on a Sunday Joe has asked the team to come together for a problem-solving exercise.

Joe introduces the team to six hats thinking before breaking them into two groups of four. He mixes up the group to create some diversity in thinking.

Joe tells them that each group will undertake six 15-minute rounds of six hat thinking, wearing a different hat for each round. Joe has the groups where hats in a logical order so that discussions flow toward a final outcome.

Joe facilitates the group through the six 15-minute discussions, considering the problem from the perspective represented by their hat colour. They are asked to write their thoughts and ideas on post it notes, keeping them for the end of the six sessions.

Once the groups have worn all the hats Joe facilitates the whole group to share their thoughts for each of the hats, giving the team a full picture of the problem from all perspectives.

What the groups might have come up with in their sessions:

Blue Hat – when wearing the blue hat groups would be asking themselves things like:

  • The problem is that there are complaints and continued customer dissatisfaction is not good for repeat business and reputation
  • We are trying to improve customer satisfaction and reduce complaints by improving the speed at which we are able to make coffee
  • The benefits of solving the problem are improved reputation and more business
  • The most effective way to solve the problem could be to get a new, improved and faster coffee machine, address the process for making coffee as it is currently inefficient etc.

White Hat – when wearing the white hat groups would be asking themselves things like:

  • How many complaints are we getting that relate to the problem of waiting times and the speed at which we can serve coffee?
  • How long does it currently take to make a coffee?
  • Can it be done quicker?
  • Do solutions exist and if they do, what impact could they have on speed?
  • What is the cost of possible solutions?

Green Hat – when wearing the green hat groups would be getting super positive and innovative. They will be looking for fresh ideas that may be outside the box. They might try to answer questions like:

  • What are we missing? Can we fundamentally change the way we make coffee?
  • Is there a coffee machine that can make coffee quicker than our current machine?
  • Could we 5S ("sort", "set in order", "shine", "standardize", and "sustain") the workplace to make us leaner and more efficient?
  • What are other coffee shops doing and how can we do it better/different?

Yellow Hat – when wearing the yellow hat groups would be optimistic, thinking of all good things that will arise from the solutions they uncovered in the previous green hat round. For each idea, they might try to answer questions like:

  • What are the ways in which this idea can improve our speed in making coffee?
  • What are all the positive outcomes that can come from this idea, in addition to reducing complaints and speeding up coffee production?
  • What are the reasons why we should implement this idea?

Red Hat – when wearing the red hat groups will be throwing out all their negative gut feelings. For each green hat idea, they might try to answer questions like: 

  • What things could go wrong?
  • What does my gut tell me about why this won’t work?
  • Is this idea too expensive, too much work, already dismissed?
  • Why don’t I like this idea?

Black Hat – when wearing the red hat groups will be using their logical brain (frontal lobe) to consider negative aspects of ideas, but from a logical standpoint. For each green hat idea and red hat negative, they might try to answer questions like:

  • Will this go wrong in practice?
  • Are there ways to mitigate the things that could go wrong?
  • Is there any evidence to say that something will go wrong?
  • Is the reason I have for not liking this idea a valid one?

Here's a diagram of the the Six Thinking Hats in Action.

six thinking hats in action

Concluding with a gold hat!

The gold action hat

I lie, there is no gold hat!

But the key to six hats is thinking in actions, so let’s call that the gold hat.

All of your meetings, discussions, exploration and thinking should culminate in forward movement, a commitment to implement new ways of doing and seeing things. The six thinking hats method should provide you with all you need to know to make good decisions and solve big problems.

So, put on your shiny new gold hat, have a freshly made (and quickly delivered) coffee and make things happen.

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