HomeSeptember 2010Giving people permission to think differently

Giving people permission to think differently

The “Six Thinking Hats” is a powerful technique that aids a team as they look at making important decisions from a number of different perspectives, writes Keith McCarthy.

Keith McCarthy
Keith McCarthy

There have been many books written about the power of positive thinking, team development, harnessing team potential and other related subjects.  A visit to any bookshop will surprise you with an array of different philosophies, tools and processes to help. Now this article is not going to give an overview of these books or the merits or demerits of any of them.  What I do want to do, is to see if there are tools for a trainer, facilitator or manager which can help to shape peoples’ thinking, help people change their mindset or to see things differently.

In many cases, as we implement change or enter challenging times, many people find it difficult to see beyond their own role. An inherent uncertainty kicks in; how is this going to impact me? This is natural. There can be a fear attached to change and uncertainty.  Engaging people in change processes, although slower, in terms of achieving completion and outcomes, can mean that the buy-in will be greater in the long run. Supporting people to help them to make decisions is important.

One book which provides a very useful tool is 1Edward De Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’. Used by many organisations, the “Six Thinking Hats” is a powerful technique that aids a team as they look at making important decisions from a number of different perspectives. Around since 1985, this book and its approach are not new. But, I don’t believe this lessens its effectiveness.  It can help people make better decisions by pushing beyond the boundaries of their habitual ways of thinking. As such, it can help teams and individuals understand the full complexity of a decision, and spot issues and opportunities which might arise or otherwise go unnoticed.

It can help people make better decisions by pushing beyond the boundaries of their habitual ways of thinking

A team can be a mix of different types of people e.g. rational, pessimistic, optimistic or emotional. Harnessing and channeling their thought processes collectively can be difficult. The Six Thinking Hats aims to promote lateral thinking. It involves putting on a metaphorical hat (or a physical one in some instances) and thinking in those terms. Each “Thinking Hat” is a different style of thinking. These are explained below:

  • White Hat: With this thinking hat, you focus on the data available. You look at the information you have, and see what you can learn from it.
  • Red Hat: Wearing the red hat, you look at the decision using intuition, gut reaction, and emotion.
  • Black Hat: When using black hat thinking, you look at things pessimistically, cautiously and defensively. You try to see why ideas and approaches might not work.
  • Yellow Hat: The yellow 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, and spot the opportunities that arise from it.
  • Green Hat: The Green Hat stands for creativity. This is where you can develop creative solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas.
  • Blue Hat: The Blue Hat stands for process control. This is the hat worn by people chairing or facilitating meetings. If running into difficulties because ideas are running dry, they may direct activity into Green Hat thinking.

Dedicating time to thinking while under the influence of each hat gives protected time to a specific style of thinking. When I begin to hear people at meetings using the hats as a mechanism to articulate their thinking, you know that they have truly embraced the spirit of the approach.

Having used this particular tool in many forums and for different types of projects, it is interesting to see how quickly people can be engaged in the philosophy and approach.  It gives people permission to think differently than they normally would.  One of the most important components is that it gives people permission to be creative. This is often missing from group decisions, particularly where teams have worked together for a long time and are finding it difficult to think of new ideas. A little green hat thinking can go along away.

As a trainer or manager try the approach using the following exercise:

  1. Explain the use of the ‘six thinking hats’
  2. Pick a topic
  3. Spend three minutes of thinking (brainstorming) using each of the hats
  4. Wear the blue hat yourself, as you are keeping control of the process. If people veer away from thinking under one hat bring them back to the hat they should be wearing
  5. Flipchart all the comments
  6. Review and examine all the outputs
  7. Create actions to move forward
  8. Reflect on the use of the tool

Why not try the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ as an alternative approach. It isn’t a new approach, but sometimes the old ones are the best!!
Good luck!

1 de Bono, Edward (1985). Six Thinking Hats: An Essential Approach to Business Management. Little, Brown, & Company.