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Six Thinking Hats

DZone's Guide to

Six Thinking Hats

Put on your thinking cap with this article and read about how you can make your thought process more linear and organized.

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I have been reading Edward De Bono's Six Thinking Hats, the 1990 edition, and I find it an interesting concept. He talks about the compartmentalization and segregation of thinking when trying to find the solution to a problem or generally trying to resolve some issue.

The thinking has been segregated into six categories, hence the six thinking hats, and each hat has been given a color. If you are wondering where he got the idea for hats, it comes from the phrase, "Put on your thinking cap." The colors are...

  • White - For facts and figures
  • Red - For emotions and feelings
  • Black - For negative thinking
  • Yellow - For positive thinking
  • Green - For creative thinking
  • Blue - For the overall thinking process

To go into these in more detail.

Thinking

According to De Bono, there are two types of thinking.

  • Coping Thinking, when your thoughts are just there for daily life.
  • Deliberate Thinking, when you actively try to think. This is where his book comes into play.

Deliberate thinking is when you actively need to solve a problem which those of is in IT do quite frequently. Much like Carol Dweck's work in Mindset, De Bono is of the mind that thinking is a skill that can be improved. By actively putting your mind into certain "Frames" you can change your brain chemistry and think outside the box.

The following is my take and learnings on the six thinking hats.

White Hat Thinking

White is cold and neutral.

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White Hat thinking is the first of the 6 hats. It is concerned with only facts and figures. It is not concerned with how to interpret these facts, nor does it deal with trying to resolve the relationships between the facts and figures. It is only cold hard facts that we are interested in. Now, according to De Bono, there are 2 types of Facts.

  • Checked Facts
  • Believed (or Unchecked) facts.

A checked fact is something that has been verified, either through reference or through experimentation.

Believed facts are where things get interesting. Believed facts are where you rely on something not verified. For example, your memory. You may have read something a week ago, not be able to produce the reference, but you "believe" that you have read it somewhere. Therefore this gives you an outlet to state it., but because it relies on something fallible, the human memory, it is considered an unchecked fact, and an unchecked fact is of lesser worth than a checked fact.

The white hat is also not concerned with opinion. Specifically, your opinion. That is for another hat. Whereas, if you report the opinion of someone else, then it is a fact (or unchecked fact) that that person had an opinion on the subject.

Facts are also timely. There may be times when a fact becomes irrelevant.

Be careful about how you state the facts and figures to as not draw an opinion or interpretation. Be as neutral as possible.

Red Hat Thinking

Red is the color of anger.

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Red Hat Thinking is concerned with emotions. These can include:

  • Hunches
  • Intuitions
  • Impressions
  • Feeling and so forth

You do not have to justify a feeling; in fact, you shouldn't under the Red Hat. Something may or may not feel right. Feelings are completely irrational and rather than ignore them, the Red Hat gives a legitimate outlet for them. Whereas the White Hat was completely cold and neutral, the Red Hat is where you can make your opinions known.

There are 3 points where emotions can affect your thinking.

  • Background emotions. These take the form of fear, anger, suspicion, jealousy, and love.
  • Initial perception. For example, when someone says one thing, and you jump to a conclusion in your head, you may think that they are saying something out of self-interest or trying to make themselves look good. 
  • Emotions from after the fact. Once you have been given all the information, then how do you feel about the situation.

Once emotions have been made visible, then they can be explored further or maybe even changed through satisfying those emotions.

The Red Hat is there to reflect on the emotions that are produced and explore them further. They should not be used in overkill.

Black Hat Thinking

Black is the color of negativity, darkness.Image title

Black Hat thinking is about the negative side of the subject. It is not the emotional negative side; that takes place under the Red Hat. Black Hat thinking deals with the negative logical thought.

With the Black Hat, we are trying to find out what is wrong. What the faults are, not in the sense of tearing the idea or subject matter down, but in finding out where the weaknesses are with the intention of improving those weaknesses and faults under another hat. 

Black Hat is concerned with finding the negative consequences. Not the solutions to those consequences, but just the stating of them.

Black Hat thinking is also concerned with alternative paths that the proposed solution may take. It can also be used to point out where facts are wrong or irrelevant.

Black Hat thinking isn't concerned with solving the problems that have been found out. It is only concerned with finding out those problems.

One thing that Black Hat thinking definitely isn't is an argument. It is not there to show doubt of the solution. We are pointing out the areas that need improvement, areas of danger, areas where we could be wrong, areas of risk, not tearing down the subject matter, nor are we trying to deny the validity of the subject matter. This can be very difficult as it is a lot easier and more satisfying to tear something down than create or improve something. Tearing something down is a childish indulgence as DeBono puts it. The equivalent of knocking over a tower of blocks. Finding out where the tower of blocks is unstable and finding ways to reinforce those blocks is a lot harder.

In the area of new ideas, it is harder for the brain to switch from a mindset of negativity to that of positive thinking, therefore it is recommended that the Yellow Hat precedes Black Hat Thinking.

Yellow Hat Thinking

Yellow hat is the color of positive, sunshine, happiness.

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Where Black Hat is concerned with the negative aspects, Yellow Hat is concerned with the positive and optimistic aspects.

We are concerned with where will the subject matter work. When focusing on the positive aspects, even when it seems futile, it is possible that non-obvious positive aspects will be found that would not normally be found any other way. Value and benefits are not always obvious at first glance.

When using the yellow hat, over-optimism is encouraged, but not all things are equal and thus should be categorized as either:

  • Proven;
  • Very Likely;
  • Good Chance;
  • Even Chance;
  • No better than possible;
  • Remote or long shot.

Keep in mind that a remote or long shot idea (A Black Swan) has been known to succeed spectacularly. Yellow Hat is constructive in nature. You build up an idea, find the positive aspects. Then afterward use the Black Hat to find the flaws.

Under Yellow Hat, you can generate proposals, find positive aspects of proposals and continue developing those proposals or ideas up.

Faults found under Black Hat thinking can be corrected. Ways around those faults or solutions can be found.

Yellow Hat Thinking is the frame of mind that says "It will work, we will make it work, we will find a way," but you have to be a realist, and if the benefit is poor under the best scenario, then sometimes the idea may not be worth pursuing, but you need to give it every chance to try to succeed.

Yellow Hat thinking deals with vision and dreams. It helps give a goal to strive for.

Yellow Hat thinking does not deal with creativity, it only comes up with the opportunities. The Green Hat then explores those opportunities and finds new and creative ways to exploit those opportunities.

Green Hat Thinking

Green is the color of nature and creation.

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The Green Hat is about new ideas and looking at things in a different way. It is about change, deliberate and focused change. This is what makes the Green Hat special and valuable. The Green Hat gives an outlet to give illogical and provocative ideas, to bring in new concepts that can go against the grain. Sometimes it those counter-intuitive ideas that give something special.

Ideas can be fragile and easily killed and thus need to be protected from the negativity that the Black Hat can bring. The Green Hat gives a safe haven for ideas to flourish and thrive.

The Green Hat gives time to deliberately think creatively. It is not important that you gain an outcome that is creative, it is not important that there is an outcome at all. It is quite possible to sit, think and not come up with anything at all. Which, by the way, isn't how it works. What is important is that you make the effort to spend time looking at the subject in different ways, to try. For without trying, you will never know what you could have achieved.

Ideas can be completely illogical or impractical, but the exploration of these ideas can lead to something more practical. For example, I want a robot to do the boring work for me. This can lead to automation through scripts and sites like https://ifttt.com/.

Other times ideas need to be nurtured. The initial idea may not be fully formed. It needs work to get more traction.

If you have troubles generating ideas, De Bono goes through a couple of ways to spur creativity. One method is through provocation. Provocation is to deliberately provoke ideas through injection. The injection can be something completely absurd. It can be something completely random. One example from the many that De Bono gives is that "Shoppers should be paid to buy things." Now, you may be wondering why you would pay shoppers to buy things, but if you have a loyalty card or received a cash back from a promotion, this is exactly what a practical application of an absurd idea can lead to. Another method of provocation that De Bono mentions is to create a random word. Pick a random number, go to that page in the dictionary and find the first noun. For example, my random word is "friend" taken from a poster of 100 essential words that is for my six-year-old son to learn. The subject matter is a "wall", in this case another random subject. Something nice and boring. The subject matter would normally be something that you are discussing. Then you find the properties of the random word and try to see how it can relate to the subject.

For example, just coming up with these myself now.

Friends - Communication, Sharing.

Have a wall where you put notes for one another.
A wall is a flat surface, a screen of sorts, an app that allows friends to communicate, share information (yeah, I know — I've just described Facebook), but you get the idea. One thing you don't do which I have just done is tear down an idea. Explore it further. See where it takes you. Also, do not go with just the first idea that comes into your head or the teams' heads. We have a tendency to accept the first thing that we think of, or at best the most obvious alternatives and leave it at that. Creativity is about going beyond the obvious and exploring what is not obvious. What is hidden, especially if it is hidden in plain sight.

Once you have your ideas, then apply constraints to them. There is no point trying to pursue ideas that you do not have the budget for, but see if there is a way to do things within the budget. Samuel Pierpont Langley had all the budget and time in the world and the best minds on payroll to make the first heavier-than-air flight, yet two brothers who owned a bicycle shop were the first make powered flight a reality. Sometimes having next to no money is a good thing.

So when do you invoke the Green Hat? Basically, any time you want. There may be a formal time where you invoke the Green Hat and be creative, there may be times when you are exploring something through, for example, the Red Hat, you pause and then start invoking the Green Hat and explore the thoughts creatively and see where it leads to, but don't take things too far. Creative thinking can lead you away from the problem you are trying to solve, and this may or may not be a good thing. Judgment needs to be taken into account. What you don't want to be doing is trying to find better ways to shaving a yak when the initial problem was how to improve your deployment. The Blue Hat is there to help you keep in line.

Blue Hat Thinking

Blue is the color of the sky, overarching everything.

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The Blue Hat thinking is different to the other hats. The Blue Hat thinking is more about the orchestration and facilitation of the other hats. For example, you could use the Green Hat to generate new ideas, White Hat to get some data on the idea, Yellow Hat to explore the positives of those ideas, the Black Hat to find the flaws and maybe cull a few ideas, Yellow Hat again to fix up those flaws, Green Hat to find creative ways for some of the more tricky issues, then Red Hat to get a feeling of what feels right.

The orchestration can be predefined, for example, have the team put on their Blue Hats and determine what order the thinking process will take. At this point, we are not concerned with the subject matter, but how we will think about the subject matter. The Blue Hat is a very strange concept indeed as we are used to thinking as something that flows rather than something that is deliberately organized, but that is precisely what the six thinking hats is for. The deliberate organization of thinking.

The Blue Hat does not necessarily only deal with the orchestration of the hats, it can be used to determine priorities and constraints on the subject of the thought process.

I mentioned previously that with the Green Hat and creativity that things can drift, it is under the Blue Hat that focus is kept. The Blue Hat can be used to bring the thought process back in line. It can also be used to determine if the focus of thought is narrow or wide. It is completely up to the circumstance.

The Blue Hat also calls out incorrect thinking at the wrong time for example if someone is expressing feelings during the white Hat process. Saying that, you should not go too overboard about controlling the hats. Some hats do overlap. For example, the Green and Yellow can have traits of one another. You also do not want to get into a situation where someone is invoking a different hat every seconds statement. The whole idea of the hats is to invoke a certain mindset about the thought process. Not to be a process unto itself. There may be even times where the discussion does not fall under any particular Hat. That is ok too.

The concept of deliberate thinking is very interesting and I can see how it can be used for problem-solving. This sort of segregation of thinking would be great for Retrospectives in my opinion. For example, with Yellow Hat thinking, being able to get everyone to focus on the positives of an idea rather than have someone shoot it down straight away. Even making the person who shot down the idea come up with at least 2 positives could change the mindset to get constructive feedback before unleashing the negatives. Having the whole thinking process orchestrated and facilitated by the Scrum Master or Iteration Manager, would be interesting, especially since that is how I see it is part of the job to get the team to open their mind and improve their ability to think of better and more interesting solutions and experiments in ways of doing things.

Remember that the six thinking hats is but another tool. One that I plan to keep in my mental toolbox to pull out when the time is right. It is not a strict process to be followed, but something to give guidance. Use it appropriately.

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Topics:
agile ,six thinking hats ,retrospective ,thought process ,thought prioritization ,deliberate thinking

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