Six Thinking Hats
By Edward de Bono (includes links to many of his other books)
Amazon link: Six Thinking Hats
Simple overview of The Six Thinking Hats
The Six Hats Method
Thinking is the ultimate human resource.
Yet we can never be satisfied with our most important skill.
No matter how good we become, we should always want to be better.
Usually, the only people who are very satisfied with their thinking skill are those poor thinkers who believe that the purpose of thinking is to prove yourself right—to your own satisfaction.
If we have only a limited view of what thinking can do, we may be smug about our excellence in this area, but not otherwise.
The main difficulty of thinking is confusion.
We try to do too much at once.
Emotions, information, logic, hope and creativity all crowd in on us.
It is like juggling with too many balls.
What I am putting forward in this book is a very simple concept which allows a thinker to do one thing at a time.
He or she becomes able to separate emotion from logic, creativity from information, and so on.
The concept is that of the six thinking hats.
Putting on any one of these hats defines a certain type of thinking.
In the book I describe the nature and contribution of each type of thinking.
The six thinking hats allow us to conduct our thinking as a conductor might lead an orchestra.
We can call forth what we will.
Similarly, in any meeting it is very useful to switch people out of their usual track in order to get them to think differently about the mater at hand.
It is the sheer convenience of the six thinking hats that is the main value of the concept.
Special Note on the Black Hat
I am writing this special note because a few people have misinterpreted the black hat and have somehow regarded it as a bad hat.
On the contrary, the black hat is the most valuable of all the hats and certainly the most used.
Using the black hat means being careful and cautious.
The black hat points out difficulties, dangers and potential problems.
With the black hat you avoid danger to yourself, to others and to the community.
It is under the black hat that you point out possible dangers.
For the most part, the thrust of Western thinking has been the “black hat” with an emphasis on critical thinking and caution.
It prevents mistakes, excesses and nonsenses.
Argument versus Parallel Thinking
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Aristotle systematized inclusion/exclusion logic.
From past experience we would put together “boxes,” definitions, categories or principles.
When we came across something, we judged into which box it fell.
Something could be in the box or not in the box.
It could not be half in and half out nor could it be anywhere else.
As a result, Western thinking is concerned with “what is,” which is determined by analysis, judgement and argument.
That is a fine and useful system.
But there is another whole aspect of thinking that is concerned with “what can be,” which involves constructive thinking, creative thinking, and “designing a way forward.”
In 1998, I was asked to give an opening talk at the Australian Constitutional Convention that was looking at the future of federation.
I told the following story.
Once upon a time a man painted half his car white and the other half black.
His friends asked him why he did such a strange thing.
He replied: “Because it is such fun, whenever I have an accident, to hear the witnesses in court contradict each other.”
At the end of the convention the chairperson, Sir Anthony Mason, told me that he was going to use that story because it is so often the case in an argument that both sides are right but are looking at different aspects of the situation.
Many cultures in the world, perhaps even the majority of cultures, regard argument as aggressive, personal and non-constructive.
That is why so many cultures readily take up the parallel thinking of the Six Hats method.
A Changing World
A thinking system based on argument is excellent just as the front left wheel of a car is excellent.
There is nothing wrong with it at all.
But it is not sufficient.
Note on Using the Thinking Hats
When people tell me that they have been using the Six Hats method, I often ask how they have been using it, and discover that sometimes they have been using it incorrectly.
In a meeting, someone has been chosen as the black hat thinker, someone else as the white hat thinker, and so on.
The people then keep those roles for the whole meeting.
That is almost exactly the opposite of how the system should be used.
The whole point of parallel thinking is that the experience and intelligence of everyone should be used in each direction.
So everyone present wears the black hat at the appointed time.
Everyone present wears the white hat at another time.
That is parallel thinking and makes fullest use of everyone’s intelligence and experience.
Many people tell me that they enjoy argument because they can show off how clever they are.
They can win arguments and demolish opponents.
None of that is very constructive but there may be a human need to show off.
Thus showing off is not excluded from parallel thinking and the Six Hats method.
A thinker now shows off by showing how many considerations he or she can put forward under the yellow hat, how many under the black hat, and so forth.
You show off by performing well as a thinker.
You show off by performing better as a thinker than others in the meeting.
The difference is that this type of showing off is constructive.
The ego is no longer tied to being right.
Playing the Game
There are all sorts of attempts to change the personalities of people.
It is believed that if you point out a personality type or a weakness, the person will seek to compensate for that weakness.
Such methods are generally slow, ineffective and do not work.
Once people are put into a certain “box” or category they may try to compensate.
But the effort of compensation reminds them of “what they are,” so they sink even deeper into that category.
Ever since Freud, the emphasis has been on analysis: find out the deep truths and motivations for action.
Confucius’s approach was almost the exact opposite.
Instead of focusing on personality he chose to focus directly on behavior.
He urged you to use the right behavior with your colleagues, your subordinates, your superiors and your family.
Confucius was not the least bit interested in your personality or psychological makeup.
The Six Hats method follows the Confucian approach rather than the analytical one.
The rules of behavior are laid out.
You follow those rules.
If you are aggressive, no one is going to try to make you less aggressive.
But if the yellow hat is in use, then you are to use your aggression in that direction.
By going straight to behavior, the Six Hats method is much more acceptable and effective and quick than methods that set out to change personalities.
The “game” aspect of the Six Hats is very important.
If a game is being played, then anyone who does not obey the rules of the game is considered uncooperative.
If there is a switch from the black hat (caution) to the yellow hat (possible benefits) and a person continues to lay out the potential dangers, then that person is seen to be refusing to play the game.
Getting people to “play the game” is a very powerful form of changing behavior.
Six Hats, Six Colors
I want thinkers to visualize and to imagine the hats as actual hats.
For this to happen color is important.
How else could you distinguish between the hats?
Different shapes would again be difficult to learn and would be confusing.
Color makes the imaging easier.
The color of each hat is also related to its function.
White Hat → White is neutral and objective.
The white hat is concerned with objective facts and figures.
Red Hat → Red suggests anger (seeing red), rage and emotions.
The red hat gives the emotional view.
Black Hat → Black is somber and serious.
The black hat is cautious and careful.
It points out the weaknesses in an idea.
Yellow Hat → Yellow is sunny and positive.
The yellow hat is optimistic and covers hope and positive thinking.
Green Hat → Green is grass, vegetation, and abundant, fertile growth.
The green hat indicates creativity and new ideas.
Blue Hat → Blue is cool, and it is also the color of the sky, which is above everything else.
The blue hat is concerned with control, the organization of the thinking process, and the use of the other hats.
If you remember the color and the associations of each hat, remembering the function of the hat will then follow.
You may also think of three pairs of hats:
White and red
Black and yellow
Green and blue
In practice the hats are always referred to by their color and never by their function.
There is a good reason for this.
If you ask someone to give his or her emotional reaction to something, you are unlikely to get an honest answer because people think it is wrong to be emotional.
But the term red hat is neutral.
You can ask someone to “take off the black hat for a moment” more easily than you can ask that person to stop being cautious.
The neutrality of the colors allows the hats to be used without embarrassment.
Thinking becomes a game with defined rules rather than a matter of exhortation and condemnation.
The hats are referred to directly:
I want you to take off your black hat.
For a few minutes let us all put on our red thinking hats.
That’s fine for yellow hat thinking.
Now let’s have the white hat.
When you are dealing with people who have not read this book and who are unaware of the symbolism of the six thinking hats, the explanation attached to each color can quickly give the flavor of each hat.
You should then follow up by giving those people a copy of this book to read.
The more widespread the idiom, the more efficient it will be in use.
Eventually you should be able to sit down at any discussion table and switch in and out of “hats” with ease.
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Think of the blue sky.
The sky is above everything.
If you were up in the sky you would be looking down at everything below.
With blue-hat thinking you are above the thinking: you are looking down at the thinking.
With blue-hat thinking you are thinking about thinking.
The blue hat is the overview.
The blue hat is the process control.
The blue hat is like the conductor of the orchestra.
With all the other hats we think about the subject matter, but with the blue hat we think about our thinking.
The blue hat covers the following points:
1. Where are we now?
2. What is the next step?
3. Program for thinking
5. Observation and comment
A person who puts on the blue hat steps back from the thinking that is going on in order to watch that thinking.
What is the Next Step?
What should we do next (in our thinking)?
The blue-hat thinker may suggest the use of another hat, or a summary, or a definition of the focus etc. It may be that no one knows what to do next, so a suggestion is necessary.
It may be that everyone wants to do something different next, so a decision is required.
If there is a clear view of the next step then that step can be taken.
Program for Thinking:
Instead of just choosing the next step, the blue hat can be used for setting out a whole program of thinking on the subject.
This is an agenda or sequence in which various thinking steps will be taken.
This would usually be done at the beginning of the meeting but could be done at any time.
The program could cover the whole meeting or apply just to one subject or part of a subject.
In some cases the program may consist of a sequence of the thinking hats.
The blue hat treats thinking in a formal manner.
Just as a computer programmer sets up a program for a computer so the blue hat can set up the program for thinking.
Observation and Comment:
The blue-hat thinker is above the thinking and looking down at what is happening.
So the blue-hat thinker observes and comments.
‘It seems to me that all we have been doing is argue about the objective of this meeting.’
‘We set out to consider some alternatives and we have only considered one so far.’
‘There is a lot of red-hat thinking this morning.’
This blue-hat function makes thinkers conscious of their thinking behaviour.
Just how effective is it?
In practice many people use the blue hat without saying they are doing so.
It is better to declare it openly.
Over-use is not a real problem but must be avoided.
It is very irritating if every few seconds someone halts the meeting to make a blue-hat comment.
Occasional use is more effective.
The green hat is for action and creativity: for ideas, suggestions and proposals.
These do not have to be worked out in detail.
The blue hat is for the control of the thinking process itself.
‘What has happened?
What is happening?
What should happen next?
Setting the Focus
Just as we need to be aware of the focus and purpose so we should also be able to set the focus and purpose.
What do you want to focus on?
Both from moment to moment and also in setting a thinking agenda (blue hat) you should be able to pick out and define different focus areas—and what you want to do with each focus area.
Overview and control of the thinking process itself.
What are we doing?
What should we do next?
Direct relationship to AGO, focus and purpose, outcome and conclusion.