The de Bono Hats system (also known as "Six Hats" or "Six Thinking Hats") is a thinking tool for group discussions. The tool, combined with the idea of parallel thinking which is associated with it, provides a means for groups to think together more effectively, and a means to plan thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive way. The method is attributed to Dr. Edward de Bono and is the subject of his book, Six Thinking Hats.
The method is finding widespread use in the UK innovation sector, is offered by numerous facilitation companies and has been trialled within the UK civil service.
Michael Hewitt-Gleeson claims that the method was initially developed during a brainstorming session he had with Edward de Bono and Eric Bienstock in 1983.
The premise of the method is that the human brain thinks in a number of distinct ways which can be identified, deliberately accessed and hence planned for use in a structured way allowing one to develop strategies for thinking about particular issues. Dr de Bono identifies five distinct states in which the brain can be "sensitised". In each of these states the brain will identify and bring into conscious thought certain aspects of issues being considered (e.g. gut instinct, pessimistic judgement, neutral facts).
Perhaps the most compelling example presented is the idea of sensitivity to "mismatch" stimuli as a particularly strong tendency. This is presented as being a valuable survival instinct - because in the natural world the thing that is out of the ordinary may well be dangerous. This is identified as the root of negative judgement and critical thinking.
Six distinct states are identified
Neutrality (white) - considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
Feeling (Red) - instinctive gut reaction or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
Negative judgement (Black) - logic applied to identifying flaws or barriers, seeking mismatch
Positive Judgement (Yellow) - logic applied to identifying benefits, seeking harmony
Creative thinking (Green) - statements of provocation and investigation, seeing where a thought goes
Process control (Blue) - thinking about thinking
In order to make it easier to clearly identify and work with these states the use of coloured hats as metaphors for them is used; each state is symbolised by the act of putting on a colored hat, either actually or imaginatively. The use of these metaphors also allows more complete and elaborate definition of the states thus getting past the preconceptions inherent in using peoples current language.
Furthermore Dr de Bono asserts that these states are associated with distinct chemical states of the brain - although no details or evidence of this are presented.
In ordinary, unstructured thinking this process is unfocussed; the thinker leaps from critical thinking to neutrality to optimism and so on without structure or strategy. As individuals we are used to this and develop our own habits unconsciously. sometimes these are effective, other time not. What is certain is that when thinking in a group these individual strategies will not tend to converge. as a result discussion will not tend to converge. and due to the power of the ego and the identified predilection to black hat thinking in the majority of western culture, this can lead to very destructive meetings. Even with good courtesy and clear shared objectives in any collaborative thinking activity there is a natural tendency for "spaghetti thinking" where one person is thinking about the benefits whilst another considers the facts and so on. The hats allow this to be avoided so that everyone together considers the problems, or the benefits, or the facts, reducing distractions and supporting cross pollination of thought. this is achieved because everyone will put on e.g. the white hat together, then they will all put on the next hat together. in this way all present think in the same way at the same time. the only exception being the facilitator who will tend to keep the blue hat on all the time to make sure things progress effectively
Strategies and Programs
Having identified the six states that can be accessed, distinct programs can be created, these are sequences of hats which encompass and structure the thinking process toward a distinct goal. A number of these are included in the materials provided to support the franchised training of the six hats method, however it is often necessary to adapt them to suit an individual purpose. Also, programs are often "emergent" which is to say that you might plan the first few hats then the facilitator will see what seems to be the right way to go.
Sequences always begin and end with a blue hat; the group agrees together how they will htink, then they do the thinking, then they evaluate the outcomes of that thinking and what they should do next.
Sequences (and indeed hats) may be used by individuals working alone or in groups.
Initial Ideas - Blue, White, Green, Blue
Choosing between alternatives - Blue, white,(Green), Yellow, Black, Red, Blue
identifying solutions - Blue, White, Black, Green, Blue
Quick Feedback - Blue, Black, Green, Blue
Strategic Planning - blue, yellow, black, white, blue, green, blue
Process Improvement - Blue, White, White (Other peoples views), Yellow, black, green, red, blue
Solving Problems - Blue, White, Green, Red, Yellow, Black, Green, Blue
Performance Review - Blue, Red, White, Yellow, Black, Green Red, Blue
More Hat details and examples
Included below is a brief description of each of the hats and the thinking processes that they represent. Their use is illustrated through the analysis of a simple classroom issue - "Students are talking while their teacher is talking".
White hat – facts
Participants make statements of fact, including identifying information that is absent and presenting the views of people who are not present in a factual manner. In many thinking sessions this occurs immediately after an initial blue hat, and it often an extended action with participants presenting details about their organisation and the background to the purpose of the thinkng session. The key information that represents the inputs to the session are presented and discussed. Key absences of information (ie information needs) can also be identified at this point.
examples of white hat statements are:
total sales of this product last year were €x
our sales data is two years old
impending legislation threatens our ability to run our business
the number of elderly people in europe is increasing
exaples from the above reference are:
- Students are talking while the teacher is talking
- There is noise and therefore other students are distracted and can’t hear the teacher
- Students don’t know what to do once instructions are given
- Many students become distracted and off task resulting in the failure to complete work
- Students are not understanding the focused lecture due to lack of concentration
Red hat – emotions
Participants state their feelings, exercising their gut instincts. In many cases this is a method for harvesting ideas - it is not a question of recording statements, but rather getting everyone to identify their top two or three choices from a list of ideas or items identified under another hat. This is done to help reducing lists of many options into a few to focus on by allowing each participant to vote for the ones they prefer. It is applied more quickly than the other hats to ensure it is a gut reaction
feeling that is recorded.
For example, imagine a group of you are planning a picnic. under a white hat you identified all of the items you have available to take with you, it was:
Cutlery, plates, sandwiches, juice, tea, coffee, beer, crisps, pickled onions, salad, pork pie
these are written on a piece of paper. each person in turn places three votes by marking an X next to these items, they can spread or concentrate the votes as they please.
the result might be
Cutlery, plates X, sandwiches XX, juice X, tea XXX, coffee, beer, crisps XX, pickled onions, salad, pork pie X
demonstrating an overall desire for Tea, Sandwiches and Crisps as key areas of focus for the picnic
This method creates a clear visual cue that creates rapid if incomplete agreement around an issue. post it notes make a great alternative to the pen whne very large groups need to vote on an issue in this way.
The alternative method is to state ones gut reaction or feelings on an issue under discussion - this is more common when using the hats to review personal progres or deal with issues where there is high emotional content that is relevant to discussion. such statements might be:
I Love it, I Hate it, I'm Curious, I'm Cautious,I feel let down, I'm angry about it
examples from the above example are:
- The teacher feels offended
- Students become frustrated because they can’t hear directions
- Those talking enjoy joking around and being heard.
- It represents emotional thinking of a person.
Black hat – negative judgement
Participants identify barriers, hazards, risks and other negative connotations. This is critical thinking, looking for problems and mismatches. This hat is usually pretty natural for people to use, the issues with it are that people will tend to use it when it is not requested and when it is not appropriate, thus stopping the flow ofothers. preventing inappropriate use ofthe black hat is a common obstacle and vital step to effective group thinking. the other difficulty faced withit is that some people will naturally start to look for the solutions to problems - they start practicing green on black thinking before it is requested.
examples of black hat statements:
we will not be able to make it with our existing methods, it will be too expensive to do it that way, there will be too much political opposition to this approach, the system is energy inefficient,
statements from the cited example:
- Time is wasted
- Learning is compromised
- Those speaking feel that black hat listeners do not respect them and do not wish to hear what they are saying
- Flow of discussion is less clear
Yellow hat – positive judgement
Participants identify benefits associated with an idea or issue. This is the opposite of black hat thinking and looks for the reasons in favour of something. This is still a matter of judgement - it is an analytical process, not just blind optimism. one is looking to create justified statements in favour. it is encapsulate in the ide of "undecided positive" (whereas the black hat would be skeptical - undecided negative)
examples of yellow hat statements are:
That would be useful in market X
That would reduce the environmental impact of our activities
this approach will make our operations more efficient
this is the easiest option to achieve
- Everyone is able to say what is on their minds.
- It can be fun.
- Not only the ‘smart kids’ get to speak.
- One doesn’t have to wait to share their ideas and therefore risk forgetting information.
Green hat – alternatives and creativity
This is the hat of thinking new thoughts. It is based around the idea of provocation and thinking for the sake of identifying new possibilities. Things are said for the sake of seeing what they might mean, rather than to form a judgement. This is often carried out on black hat statements in order to identify how to get past the barriers or failings identified there (green on black thinking). Because green hat thinking covers the full spectrum of creativity green hat thinking can take many forms
examples of green hat statements:
What if we provided it for free?
Could we achieve it usng technology X instead?
If we extended the course by half a day it would really help people understand
How would someone from profession X view this
Fish (green hat thinking can include random word stimulus methods)
statements from the example above are:
- Teacher will be more aware about the amount of time they spend talking
- Teacher will try to incorporate interaction from a variety of different students rather than just the ‘smart kids’
- Students will resist the urge to say whatever is on their mind. They will think about what they have to say and whether it is relevant to the topic
- Students will take into account whether their comment will interfere with other people's learning
- Students will think of new ways to communicate rather than talking in class, for example, talk on MSN Messenger
- Students will be able to develop ideas as a result of being creative in class
Blue hat – process control (thinking about thinking)
This is the hat under which all participants discuss the thinking process. The facilitator will generally wear it throughout and each member of the team will put it on from time to time to think about directing their work together. This hat should occer at the start and end of each thinking session, it sets objectives, defines the route to take to get to them and evaluates where you have got to and where the thinking process is going. Having a facilitator maintain this role throughout helps ensure that the group remains focussed on task and improves their chances of achieving their objectives.
Examples of blue hat statements are:
We'll follow this program of thinking to start the day - does everyone agree?
OK time to move on to some yellow hat thinking
Stop there - you are getting into debate. lets do some black hat and surface all the issues together first
I think we need to revisit our objectives, I'm not sure that they are right in light of our work so far
Statements from the example cited above are:
- Teacher learns that they need to monitor the amount of time that they spend talking within the classroom
- Teacher needs to involve all students within discussions
- Teacher needs to recognize that some students need thinking time before responding. Allowing these students time to compute solutions promotes wider participation and increased learning
- Students realize that their talking makes the speaker feel unappreciated and disrespected
- Students realize that their comments are jeopardizing the learning of other individuals
- Students realize that talking out of time demonstrates a lack of self-discipline and that not all comments require sharing
Whilst the ideas of the hats themselves provides significant benefits, there is more to the six hats method as applied within de Bono thinking systems and as trained under his franchise. in particular the pace at which the hats are used is highly relevant.
Typically in use a project will begin with an extended white hat action, as everyone gets "on the same page" creating a shared vision of the issue being addressed. Thereafter each hat is used for a few minutes at a time only, except the red hat which is limited to a very short 30 seconds or so to ensure that it is an instinctive gut reaction, rather than a form of judgement. This pace is believed to have a positive impact on the thinking process, in accordance with Malcolm Gladwell's theories on "blink" thinking.
This ensures that groups think together in a focussed manner, staying on task, it also ensures that they focus their efforts on the most important elements of any issue being discussed. However, it also has the potential to create conflict if not well facilitated since people can feel "railroaded" to avoid this it is important to notice when there is any significant difference of opinion on the thinking process or the area in which it should focus
In the version of this system advocated by the School of Thinking there is a seventh hat, grey in colour, which allows for the application of experience - asking oneself: what have we done before that was like this? What happened? What experiences have we had that were similar, what lessons from them could we apply?
This is not documented in de Bono's publications, nor in the early articles presented by the SOT on their web page. The time of origin of the seventh hat idea remains unclear.
Using a variety of approaches within thinking and problem solving allows the issue to be addressed from a variety of angles, thus servicing the needs of all individuals concerned. The thinking hats are useful for learners as they illustrate the need for individuals to address problems from a variety of different angles. They also aid learners as they allow the individual to recognize any deficiencies in the way that they approach problem solving, thus allowing them to rectify such issues.
de Bono believed that the key to a successful use of the Six Think Hats methodology was the deliberate focusing of the discussion on a particular approach as needed during the meeting or collaboration session. For instance, a meeting may be called to review a particular problem and to develop a solution for the problem. The Six Thinking Hats method could then be used in a sequence to first of all explore the problem, then develop a set of solutions, and to finally choose a solution through critical examination of the solution set.
So the meeting may start with everyone assuming the Blue hat to discuss how the meeting will be conducted and to develop the goals and objectives. The discussion may then move to Red hat thinking in order to collect opinions and reactions to the problem. This phase may also be used to develop constraints for the actual solution such as who will be affected by the problem and/or solutions. Next the discussion may move to the (Yellow then) Green hat in order to generate ideas and possible solutions. Next the discussion may move between White hat thinking as part of developing information and Black hat thinking to develop criticisms of the solution set.
Because everyone is focused on a particular approach at any one time, the group tends to be more collaborative than if one person is reacting emotionally (Red hat) while another person is trying to be objective (White hat) and still another person is being critical of the points which emerge from the discussion (Black hat).
- Edward De Bono. Six Thinking Hats (1985) ISBN 0-316-17831-4