Six Thinking Hats

Six thinking hats Bono - toolshero

This article explains the Six Thinking Hats, developed by Edward de Bono in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful decision making method.

What are the Six Thinking Hats?

Six Thinking Hats or Edward de Bono’s Six Hats is a good decision making technique and method for group discussions and individual thinking. Combined with the parallel thinking process, this technique helps groups think more effectively. It is a means to organize thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive manner.

Edward de Bono is the founding father of this six thinking hats technique and wrote a book about this called the Six Thinking Hats in 1985.

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A thinking hat is a metaphor for a certain way of thinking. By mentally wearing different thinking hats people are forced to look at a problem from different perspectives. Thus a one-sided way of thinking is excluded and new insights are created.

He distinguishes six different frames of mind in which the brain can become sensitive. Each of these frames of mind can be found in the brain and create conscious thoughts for certain aspects of the issues that are being discussed, (e.g. gut feeling, pessimistic views, neutral facts).

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is one of the most effective and widely used methods to kick-start innovation. Brainstorming sessions can be organised anywhere, from the office workspace to the laboratory. However, the sessions are not always equally effective. This is usually due to a lack of leadership or because of conflicts.

Edward de Bono, a pioneer in creative thinking, has developed six thinking hats to eliminate most of these disadvantages. The technique enables the user to think in six different directions. By only wearing one hat at a time, a synergy can be created between the people participating in the brainstorming session. And on top of that, brainstorming and lateral thinking also stimulate creativity and expand the scope of solution-based thinking.

Six thinking hats technique frame

The six different frames of mind (six thinking hats) are identified in the shape of a hat and each of the hats is a different colour:

White

Information: consider only information that is available, what are the facts? The white hat pushes all available information and data to be considered forward. This includes information both from within and outside the scope of the discussion or brainstorming session. This delays the assessment of this data.

It is important to be clear and specific when it comes to data so that any ambiguity can be prevented. The general goal is to better understand the concept or subject that is up for discussion, which is easier when the data is being managed in a neutral way.

Red

Emotions: intuitive reactions or expressions of feelings (but no justification required). The red hat is the emotions hat. Whenever this hat is worn, the emotional thinking process is targeted.

Emotions can be both positive and negative. Examples of positive emotions include joy, happiness, admiration, enthusiasm and expectation. Negative emotions include, for example, disappointment, jealousy, cynicism or anger. More neutral emotions would be curiosity and intuition. The objective behind wearing the red hat is to address the credibility of the emotions that play a part in a certain discussion.

Black

Judgement: logic applied to identification of mistakes or  barriers, looking for a mismatch. The black hat is the hat of caution. This also includes critical evaluations.

All shortcomings of the concept that is up for discussion are noted. The scope of the problem is maximised, through which the ‘worst case scenario’ can be found. The moment this hat is worn, the participant is required to play devil’s advocate.

Yellow

Positive view: logic applied to the identification of opportunities, looking for harmony. The yellow hat is the hat of positivity. The wearer of this hat is required to bring forward as many positive aspects related to the subject as possible. It is vital that, whilst wearing this hat, positivity is encouraged at all times.

The focus is on how something works, not on how it doesn’t work. All positive aspects that come up will be jotted down. The objective of this hat is to understand all benefits and positive points of the various ideas.

Green

Creativity: statements of provocation and investigation, hearing what an idea is about. The green hat is the hat of ideas.

Feasibility and judgment are temporarily set aside when this hat is worn, ensuring participants are free to generate as many ideas in the scope as possible. New ideas inspire you to think of even more new ideas. In this situation, everything is adapted to ‘out of the box’ thinking. The objective of this hat is to generate as many new ideas as possible.

Blue

Thinking: thinking about thinking. The blue hat is about the flow of the brainstorming session or discussion itself.

Thinking about thinking is also referred to as meta cognition. The agenda and timeline are also part of this. How long do the sessions take? When do you need to wear a particular hat, and for how long? The group’s controller should wear the blue hat for as long as the session takes.

Extra information

The coloured hats are used as metaphors for the various states of mind. Switching to a certain type of thinking is symbolized by wearing a coloured hat, literally or metaphorically.

These six thinking hats metaphors provide a more complete and comprehensive segregation of the types of thinking than the prejudices that are inherent to the immediate thoughts of people. All these thinking hats help people to think more deeply about a certain topic.

Parallel thinking

In ordinary and unstructured thinking, this method seems unfocused. The thinker moves from critical thinking to neutrality, to optimism, etcetera, without structure or strategy. The process of the six thinking hats introduces the process of parallel thinking.

Many people are used to ordinary thinking and they unconsciously navigate on their own habits. Sometimes these are effective and sometimes they are not. What is certain is that when people think in a group using their individual thoughts, they often fail to come to an agreement. As a consequence, there are no discussions.

The power of the ego and the identified preference for black hat thinking can lead to disastrous meetings. Even with courtesy and good manners and clear common objectives in cooperative thinking activities, people have a natural tendency for the so-called “spaghetti-thinking” in which one person is thinking about the advantages whereas another is considering the facts and so on.

Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats prevent this, so that everybody shares each other’s opinions about the problems, advantages, facts, reducing distraction and supporting thought cross pollination.

This will be accomplished because everyone will put on a hat together, for instance the white hat. After the attendants have expressed their thoughts in a round of discussion, they will put on the next hat.

In this way all the attendants will think in the same way at the same time. The only exception is the facilitator, who will tend to keep the blue hat to ensure that the discussion will progress effectively.

Strategies and programmes

After the six types of thinking have been identified, different programmes can be created. These are sequences of hats that structure the thinking process towards a clear goal.

A number of these goals have been included in the materials that support the franchise training of the six thinking hats method, however, it is often necessary to adapt these for individual purposes.

Sequences always begin and end with a blue hat, the group agrees on how they will think together, then they do the thinking and finally they evaluate the outcomes of the thinking process and what to do next. Sequences (and indeed hats) may also be used by individuals who work alone or in groups.

The following division can be made:

  • Initial Ideas – Blue, White, Green
  • Choosing between alternatives – Blue, White, Green, Yellow, Black, Red
  • Identification of solutions – Blue, White, Black, Green
  • Fast Feedback – Blue, Black, Green, White
  • Strategic planning – Blue, Yellow, Black, White
  • Process improvement – Blue, White, Yellow, Black, Green, Red
  • Problem-solving – Blue, White, Green, Red, Yellow, Black
  • Performance assessment – Blue, Red, White, Yellow, Black, Green

The Six Thinking Hats method examples

The human, natural way of speaking and interacting is often a combination of different thinking hats, as is established by the Bono. For example, someone might say: this idea ties in with our strategy and could strengthen our market position but I don’t know if the cost is acceptable or if our customers will love the idea. This sentence flows from a white hat (in line with the strategy), to a yellow hat (improving the market position), to a red hat (customers may not like it).

The Six Thinking Hats method helps managers and others to analyse different statements and judge them separately.

Below are some examples of phrases that fall under each of the thinking hats.

Blue hat

  • ‘We will talk about this problem for one hour’
  • ‘Besides the other, what are the benefits of this plan?’
  • ‘Let’s put our emotions to the side for a moment: we will take action when it’s time for the red hat’

White hat

  • ‘What will the costs be to produce one unit of the product?’
  • ‘Over the past year, the turnover has increased by 10%’
  • ‘It is estimated there are 80 million people in the United States between the age of eighteen and thirty-five’

Green hat

  • ‘Instead of opening the factory in China, we could also upgrade the one in New York’
  • ‘This is a difficult matter. Let’s get together with the team and organise a brainstorming session’
  • ‘Are there any other options we have not yet considered?’

Yellow hat

  • ‘Can we save on products and energy in order to cut costs?’
  • ‘Our sales team has many years of experience in selling programs’
  • ‘Tapping into a new market offers room to expand’

Red hat

  • ‘Finishing this project next week makes me happy’
  • ‘The results from this research make me angry!’
  • ‘Research shows our customers are afraid of a change in recipe’

Black hat

  • ‘With the current capacity we can never expand that quickly’
  • ‘I am almost certain that would be illegal’
  • ‘This idea has many advantages. What problems does it involve?’

Advantages and disadvantages of the Six Thinking Hats method

The use and application of the Bono Six Thinking Hats method of has several advantages and disadvantages. These are listed below.

Advantages of the Six Thinking Hats

  • The Six Thinking Hats method is a properly defined method
  • It stimulates parallel thinking
  • The Bono method provides structure to a brainstorming session or meeting
  • The Six Thinking Hats method motivates a clear thought process
  • The method inspires creative and effective thinking
  • The Six Thinking Hats method provides a variety of possible solutions to a problem
  • The method stimulates team engagement and performance

Disadvantages of the Six Thinking Hats

  • Applying the method in a team is time-consuming
  • In using the method, people can still disagree strongly and there can even be conflicts about different perspectives

It’s Your Turn

What do you think? What is your experience with the Six Thinking Hats by Edward De Bono? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for good decision making?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Silverstein, D., Samuel, P., & Decarlo, N. (2009). The Innovator’s ToolKit: 50 Techniques for Predictable and Sustainable Organic Growth. Wiley.
  2. De Bono, E. (1985). Six Thinking Hats: An Essential Approach to Business Management. Little, Brown, and Company.

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2 responses to “Six Thinking Hats”

  1. Tim says:

    The only limitation I perceive with 6 thinking hats, and I am novice with its use, is that all parties must be trained in the model for it to work. This is fine if all parties are from the same organisation, but if from different organisations, they might not be exposed to six thinking hats and probably aren’t. Have I misunderstood the model with my belief?

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