Six Hats Thinking
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Six Hats Thinking

Making big decisions. Not a matter of time. More a matter of process.

In his excellent book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell summarises a view that I think is very prevalent.

“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.”

Gladwell goes on to demonstrate how there are many situations where we make snap decisions using what is known as rapid cognition.

For example, in an instant we get a hunch that something’s not quite right.

Not being in full possession of all of the facts, intuition kicks in.

Gut feeling, temporarily, replaces logic.

This flies in the face of the view that haste makes waste, that we should look before we leap and that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

And it’s a very compelling premise which I happen to subscribe to.

However, even the biggest believers in Blink-ology would struggle to suggest that we ought to make snap decisions about important things.

Is someone seriously suggesting, for example, that Company X is going to choose the correct occupational health contractor because Bob ‘just knows, deep down’, that HealthyCo is the right one to go with.

No, I don’t think they are.

I reckon that they believe a tender process needs to be instigated and all kinds of best practice needs to kick in.

I’m not disputing the validity of this businesslike procedure. There’s a certain comfort that comes from feeling that you’ve given an issue all due consideration.

But this comfort quickly dissipates when you learn that, when all’s said and done, decisions are made for emotional reasons.

I’m not aware of any tender or SWOT analysis that features feelings as part of its modus operandi.

We ran a workshop recently with a major national rail network infrastructure company faced with making a tender decision worth £36M.

I started the session by asking them the top ten things that were vital attributes of the winning tender. The sacred cows. The must-haves.

Alarmingly, eight out of ten were not covered by the tender procedure.

Trust, reputation, transparency, honesty…these are all regarded as soft values but they have a deep influence on gut feeling and emotional response.

We ignore them at our peril.

When people undermine a decision at the water cooler, they don’t generally bring into question budgets or capabilities. They tend to focus on values like trust, dependability, and so on.

So, if all these things are so important, is there a way of taking them into account during a decision making process?

There’s certainly one way that works very well: Edward de Bono’s Six Hats process.

Six Hats involves the wearing of metaphorical hats, with each hat signalling a different type of thinking.

The black hat is for critical thinking. Critical thinking is useful in decision making because it allows us to pass judgement based on facts.

But, notably, in amongst the hat colours is the red hat.

When pretending to wear the red hat we are allowed to voice our gut reactions, without the need to justify them or prove they are right.

The point is that this allows us to get our feelings out for all to hear.

Once we’ve vented our spleen, we can move on and tackle the things that bother us, wearing a different hat..

This way of thinking has remarkable results because it looks at a situation from every perspective, including the emotional one.

Another great decision making tool is the checklist — explored brilliantly in The Checklist Manifesto.

Checklists are great because they break down issues into bite-size chunks.

They’re an effective way of keeping calm by forcing us to take things one step at a time.

This is important because, particularly when a decision is very important, we tend to feel intimidated by the thought we might go on to make the wrong choices.

They also remind us of a process that we can design before we need to use it.

Here are two examples of the use of a pre-prepared process to make a decision.

Following a bird strike in January 2009, a passenger jet lost engine power shortly after take-off from New York.

The plane landed safely on the Hudson River, with no loss of life, following a heroically calm performance from the pilot.

This pilot had every reason to panic, particularly with a full cabin behind him, but he followed a checklist to bring everyone to safety.

When terrorists attacked Paris recently, the situation was forcibly ended by French police in two separate locations.

Two different crises with human life at stake. Both unexpected and unprecedented.

Within hours, both sieges were over.

As with the Hudson River landing, the anti-terrorist measures relied on an existing process. The security forces had practised rescuing hostages after a gun battle. All they didn’t know was where the gun battle was going to be.

Whatever life throws at us, the choices we face don’t have to be as daunting as they first appear. The gravity of the decision doesn’t mean we can’t decide quickly.

And the time we need to make these choices is not as important as the process that we use to guide us.




Read what happens when I think about an issue using Edward de Bono’s famous Six Hats process.

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Philip Morley

Philip Morley

I turn fluff into concrete. I help businesses communicate the most complicated things clearly and simply.

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