Find the Right Thinking Hat for Your Brainstorming Session


Edward de Bono, a Maltese physician whose promotion of lateral thinking had made him a highly sought consultant, was writing an article. He tried to imagine a situation in which participants took part in creative thinking, a time when they would toss out new concepts, discuss and develop them. But whenever he thought of someone suggesting a new idea, he visualized another participant shooting it straight down.

That destructiveness looked like an inevitable and fatal part of the creative process.

“If the environment was such that the greatest motivation of everyone around was to fuel their ego by saying, ‘That won’t work,’ and ‘That’s wrong,’ ‘That’s not going to happen,’ and so on and so on – until we could move them through that, it wasn’t going to happen,” he explained. “To move out of such an entrenched negative mode of thinking by saying, ‘Don’t do it,’ doesn’t make sense. But to say, ‘There is a time and place where that sort of critical thinking is perfectly correct, but other times where it’s not,’ might work.”

What de Bono understood was that there are different ways of thinking. As we examine an object or an idea, we can take different views. We might look deliberately for an idea’s flaws, for example, or try to identify the information that’s missing from a new concept. We can discuss what we like about a proposal as well as what we don’t like.

All of the conclusions that those different approaches produce are true. No one view is more important than the other. In fact, it’s only by taking a holistic approach to an idea, by examining it from all the different perspectives, that we can fully understand it—and determine its value. And only then can we begin to develop and enhance that idea.

De Bono wrote up his insight as a book called Six Thinking Hats, which went on to sell millions and, he says, helped companies as large as Motorola, IBM, and Boeing cut time in meetings and save millions of dollars through faster and sharper decision-making.

The principle is simple. There are six ways to think, argued de Bono, and he represented each with a colored hat.

The Blue hat is the conductor’s hat. It’s for management and organization. It’s used to plan action, create summaries, and make conclusions.

The Green hat is the creative hat. This when participants throw out new ideas and test alternatives and possibilities.

The Red hat is for the heart. We wear it when we’re focused on our feelings, intuition, and emotional reactions.

The Yellow hat is for optimism. We look for the benefits and advantages of an idea when we wear this hat.

The Black hat is the judge’s hat. It’s pessimistic. It’s the time when we look for the risks and downsides, and apply critical judgment.

And the White hat is the factual hat. It’s while wearing this hat that we assess the information that we possess and try to identify the details we lack.

Users of the method don’t have to wear hats physically, although doing so might help to ensure that they remain in character and in the right approach. The methods can be used alone or in a group, and when used in a group, de Bono recommends that everyone wears the same hat at the same time to avoid personal preferences and reduce conflict.

The black hat, de Bono argues, the one that promotes negative thinking, is essential but is often overused. But the key to the method is the sequence in which the hats are worn during a discussion.

Should a brainstorming meeting begin with everyone wearing a virtual blue hat to manage the meeting’s expectations? Or should it start with green hats to get ideas out and in the open? Should a meeting first look for the benefits of an idea or should it first deal with the risks and the costs? What happens if you combine different hats so that participants have different but complementary perspectives on a problem, and when should you shift from one way of thinking to another?

Time to Change Hats

A group of researchers at the School of Design at Hunan University decided to try and find out. Ying Hu and her colleagues recruited 32 design students. She divided them into eight groups and gave them 100 minutes to design ways to solve or improve problems in a community in order to increase the size of that community.

The experiment was divided into three thinking-hat stages with participants wearing white and red hats followed by blue and green hats, and finally yellow and black hats as the discussion passed from identifying design problems to refining creative solutions.

In other words, as the students began thinking about the problem, they asked what information they possessed and needed, and what they felt about the issues they were facing. They then thought about what they needed to do and only when they had formulated an action plan did they start tossing out ideas and proposals. Finally, they assessed the risks and the benefits of the ideas they had generated.

The students wrote their ideas on paper and stuck them to boards whose colors corresponded to the virtual hat they were wearing at the time. The researchers then categorized those ideas as new, developed from a previous idea, or an idea that had arisen before. Finally, they were able to see how ideas developed as the students shifted through the hats.

What they found was that the students shifted between the hats according to four criteria.

Some students changed their way of thinking based on the number of ideas that they generated. They would stick with one hat until their ideas dried up, then use a different way of thinking to change their focus.

Other students used the hats according to what they saw as their own strengths and weaknesses. Some students, for example, said that when choosing between the yellow and black hats they would start with yellow because they knew that they had a tendency to be critical and look for faults in their own ideas. Beginning that stage of their idea development with a positive outlook enabled them to avoid stagnation during the design process and keep their thoughts positive.

Another group of students changed their way of thinking in line with the development of the idea. When they started to think negatively about an idea, for example, or questioned its feasibility, they would adopt a yellow hat and look for the idea’s benefits.

And finally, some students just switched between the hats in a way that suited them at the time. One student said that he used the white hat to generate objective ideas then the red hat to ask himself how he felt about them. He then used the blue hat thinking to produce summaries of the development so far before switching to the green hat to develop the concepts further. Finally, the yellow and black hats let him evaluate the positive and negative aspects of the ideas.

In one interesting quirk, the researchers also found that students would pull on one hat to ask a question, then switch to another to answer it.

“This kind of question and answer may form a dialog mechanism between hats, which can be applied to individual thinking, group discussion, and even the communication between experts and novices,” the researchers said. “For example, in an interdisciplinary group, can this mechanism be used to help members with different professional backgrounds communicate and promote the group’s cooperation efficiency? Or can it be applied to the communication between experts and novices in the process of design teaching, so that experts can inspire novices’ design thinking in the form of dialog?”

The Right Way to Put Your Thinking Hat on

Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats concept was meant to be simple. It was supposed to give people a clear metaphor for different ways of thinking so that they can see every aspect of a problem. By shifting between positive and critical thinking, between summaries of a development and new thoughts, and between emotional reactions and cold planning it should be possible to assess whether an idea has potential, and create a plan to develop it.

But when you have a choice of six different approaches, there are multiple ways to combine them, and those combinations can affect how an idea develops. Bring in black hat’s critical thinking too early, for example, and you might stop development in its tracks. Bring in white’s information-seeking too late and you could find that you lack the details you need to develop the idea fully.

The researchers tracked how the study participants switched between pairs of hats. They also categorized the relationship between sets of ideas as the switching took place—rating them as relevant or irrelevant, developmental or repetitive—but they didn’t measure the quality of the ideas produced.

They didn’t determine whether one particular order of hats produced more creative ideas or more effective plans than a different order. Instead, they largely found that people switched between pairs of hats based on their own personal preferences or in line with the development of an idea. They let themselves or the idea dictate the order in which they thought about it.

That makes deciding how to use the hats during your own brainstorming session difficult enough to let the problem answer itself.

Start with the researchers’ sets of pairs. Begin by choosing between white and red hats, blue and green hats, and between black and yellow hats. In other words, start by gathering information and assessing your own opinions, move on to planning and idea generation, then end by exploring the pros and cons of what you’ve created.

As for which of each pair of hats you should turn to first, let the question and your own personality determine your answer. If you tend to be critical and negative, leave black hat thinking until the end, when the idea has been developed. If the subject is new, begin with a hat that requires you to gather information.

You should find that you’re able to create a situation in which participants don’t just take part in a creative thinking exercise but are able to generate new ideas without automatically shooting them down.

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