Use the Six Thinking Hats to Solve Your Next Creative Challenge

The following is an edited excerpt from the new book, Consulting Essentials: The Art and Science of People, Facts, and Frameworks by Jeff Kavanaugh.

Dr. Edward de Bono is widely considered the father of modern creative thinking. He pioneered numerous practical thinking tools, used worldwide in schools and businesses. One of the most famous is the Six Thinking Hats.

De Bono understood that arguments can easily become biased or adversarial. This can lead to an ego-driven approach, where the goal is simply to win the argument, not to reach the best solution. To counter this tendency, in the 1980s he codified the Six Thinking Hats technique, which invites people to explore multiple perspectives of a question or problem.

Even in situations where teams share common goals, diverse thinking styles often hamper the creative process. In effect, the thinking styles intersect or block each other. De Bono developed the concept of parallel thinking, where each team member uses the same thinking style for a period of time, then rotates through a series of thinking styles to capture diverse styles, but doing so in parallel to avoid creative conflict.

The technique helps individuals and groups adopt a variety of perspectives, broadening their thinking and potentially encouraging fresh solutions. Each hat is assigned a different color and refers to a different thinking approach. An individual or a group “wears” each hat in turn, fully exploring the mode of thinking it represents. Then they switch to the next.

In a group, each person wears the same hat at the same time, to encourage collaboration and minimize conflict.

The Six Hats

So what are the six hats? They are as follows:

  • The white hat is the information hat. It requires the wearer to seek out hard, factual information related to the project or question at hand. Look at the information that you have, analyze past trends, and see what you can learn from it. Look for gaps in your knowledge, and try to either fill them or take account of them. The white hat is objective and implies no judgment of the value of the information.
  • The red hat invites the wearer to focus on their intuition, gut reaction, and emotion. Think how others could react emotionally. Although emotions and intuition aren’t easily explainable, feelings play an important role in thinking and decision-making. Seek to understand the responses of people who do not fully know your reasoning.
  • The black hat is for judgment, to look at a decision’s potential negative outcomes. It’s an opportunity to be critical or skeptical without inhibition, a useful technique to avoid mistakes and guard against excess optimism. 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.
  • The yellow hat is devoted to benefits. It helps wearers to think positively about potential outcomes, seek the merits of an idea, and reach an optimistic assessment of how it can work. This hat helps maintain momentum and a positive spirit in the face of a challenging situation.
  • The green hat represents creativity. It explores possibilities, alternatives, and new ideas. This hat can be intimidating, because many people tell themselves that they’re not creative. Like a muscle, creativity can be developed and strengthened with practice. The green hat gives people a safe space in which to think creatively.
  • The blue hat is the organizing hat. It controls the process of using the other hats and clarifies the objectives. It can also be used to explore the process of implementing an idea. How will it be done? In what sequence will actions need to be taken?

The six hats divide neatly into pairs. The white hat is about information, while the red hat is about emotions. The black hat is negative, while the yellow hat is positive. The green hat encourages creativity, while the blue hat focuses on process. It’s worth noting that the black hat and the yellow hat are broadly equivalent to the red team and the green team in the Red Team, Green Team exercise.

This technique sounds simple, but does it really work?

Yes, it does.

It has been around for decades, but I have used it in several recent situations to generate additional ideas and reach resolutions quickly. I like it, because it is fast and it is possible to use subsets of the method to fit situational needs. From proposal development to project planning, giving each hat its own time and place allows ideas to be quickly shared and heard by the working team.

Is the Six Thinking Hats approach just for business?

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.

For more strategies to improve your professional and thinking skills, check out Jeff’s book, Consulting Essentials.