Snapshot : Six Hats is a creative thinking process developed in the 1980s by Edward De Bono. In this article, we share an overview of the process and the pros and cons of using it. We then walk through a case study that uses the process to solve a business problem. Learn the value of using the Six Hats approach to solve problems and make better decisions.
Edward De Bono is a bit of a legend in the world of creative thinking.
He was one of the most well-known and respected pioneers of using our brains to think differently.
He’s best known for inventing the term “lateral thinking” and his many books on how to improve the way we think.
One of those was Six Thinking Hats, which was very popular in the late 1980s and all through the 1990s.
You don’t hear much about it these days, but there’s still an official website for it. And you can still find examples of it on Twitter.
In the book’s introduction, he claims Six Hats is the biggest breakthrough in thinking in 2,300 years. He compares it to the breakthrough in thinking that came from classic Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Clearly, he may have oversold it with that claim. But to be fair, it’s still going 45+ years later. It must have something going for it.
We’ve used the Six Hats process in the past and think there’s many situations where it adds a lot of value. So, this week, we want to do our small part to keep its legacy going, and share our thoughts on where and when it’s most useful.
What is the Six Hats approach?
Its basic premise is there are always multiple ways to think about a problem or decision. But people tend to only think about a problem one way, unless you prompt them otherwise.
If your way of thinking differs from someone else, you end up arguing. That’s not productive.
Instead, Six Hats structures how to think about problems and decisions. It claims using a process reduces arguments and clarifies thinking.
It forces everyone to look at the problem or decision from different perspectives. Each colour hat represents a different perspective. The hat signals the perspective everyone should have at that specific time. You then change hat and think about it from the next perspective.
You keep going until you’ve used each hat. Your final solution / decision comes when you review the different outputs from each hat together.
The benefits of the Six Hats approach
His book outlines many benefits to this approach. There’s 3 that stand out :-
Firstly, the quality of the solutions are better. You get a richer, more rounded view when you look at a problem or decision from multiple perspectives (multiple hats).
Together, these lead you to better thought-out solutions and decisions.
You combine the best ideas of each hat to decide the best way forward.
The Six Hats process also speeds up how you solve problems and make decisions.
In the book, De Bono shares many examples of businesses using his approach to go faster with problem solving and decision making.
The process cuts out a lot of time-wasting that happens with less structured approaches. Negative views, are shared, but these don’t necessarily hold everything up. The process keeps everyone focussed on finding the best solution.
Positive cultural impact
It forces everyone to try out different views and be more open minded that there is more than one answer. These is a better way of working.
Looking at different perspectives makes people think differently about what the best answer is. (see for example the multiple perspectives we looked at to overcome challenges on our first D2C launch).
It makes them think more creatively and reduces friction in team discussions. Everyone gets a chance to wear each hat. Everyone gets a chance to be heard. You choose the solution / decision come from a collated view of the best inputs from everyone and from all the different hats.
Watch-outs on the Six Hats
However, there’s also a couple of watch-outs on the Six Hats process. Some things you need to consider as it may not be the right answer to every creative thinking challenge.
You still need a decision maker
Firstly, though it’s a collaborative approach, you still need a final decision-maker.
Some people see Six Hats as a more democratic, decision-by-committee approach. That’s not the intent. Committees don’t always make the best decisions, and someone still has to take the lead.
A committee approach where everyone has an individual vote means their biases will still influence how they vote. Six Hats tries to filter out these biases, so the right decision is clearer to everyone.
Everyone needs to buy in to the process
In businesses, people generally work in “operations” mode, or “creative” mode (see our generating more creative ideas article for more on this).
Six Hats is clearly creative so you need everyone taking part to park their day to day operations way of thinking. Some people find this hard.
Operations mode is where most people spend most of their time, looking after the day to day routines and procedures.
They may see creative thinking, and the idea of coloured hats as frivolous. Not proper work.
Will it actually work?
Finally, there’s also surprisingly little evidence about how effective the Six Hats process is. It intuitively makes sense, but it’s hard to validate until you do it. It also doesn’t include more recent progress from related areas like behavioural science and how emotions affect decisions.
Also, not everyone can be open-minded. Some will still try to use the tool to suit their own purposes. It isn’t guaranteed to help you make the best decision every time.
However, despite these watch-outs, we still believe it’s a useful creative thinking approach. Let’s now look more closely at how it works.
How does it work?
For this article, we’ll summarise the process and each hat so you get the basics of how it works. Then we’ll work though a case study problem using the different hats, so you can see it in action.
Each hat symbolises a particular way of thinking. You use hats because it’s easier to talk about “wearing an X colour hat” than to say “let’s now apply an an X type of thinking”.
(Using actual hats is optional by the way).
The group leader sets out which hat to use at which time. The team agree to think in that hat’s thinking style. You can refer to the other hats to indicate a different way of thinking. The group change hats and so changes how they think as required. In general you all stick to the same hat until the leader asks you to move to the next hat.
You usually try to use all six hats at least once. There’s no pre-specified order. You can go back to a hat after wearing it if necessary.
The six colour hats are as follows :-
Blue Hat - Process
The Blue Hat is the “overview” hat. It’s where you step back and think about the process of thinking.
You use the Blue Hat to make sure you use different ways of thinking to get to the best idea or decision.
It sets up and controls the use of the other hats. You use it to say “how do we think about this problem?” and “what are the different perspectives we need?”.
Anyone can wear it. Normally the group leader wears it at the start and end of the session.
Wearing the Blue Hat at the start means you explain how the process will work. It’s also usually the last hat where you recap the process, and highlight what you’ve done.
The Blue Hat keeps you on track, especially if you feel you’re heading in the wrong direction.
White Hat - Facts
The White Hat focuses on facts. It aims is to take an objective view and gather information that helps support decision making.
People usually find wearing the White Hat easy because they’re used to dealing with facts in work situations. It feels professional and part of normal business culture.
However, facts aren’t the only consideration in making good decisions. They lay a good foundation, but the best decisions aren’t always the most rational ones.
Rational decisions often struggle to account for the impact of people in the business. As per our how to use emotions in creative article, people and emotions play a big role in decisions. That’s where the next hat comes in.
Red Hat - Feelings
The Red Hat is about feelings. It gives you the opposite perspective to the fact-based White Hat.
Red Hat gives people a chance to share how they’re feeling about an idea or decision.
They don’t need to explain why they feel that way – they can do with wearing one of the other hats.
They should focus instead on the feelings themselves. Red Hat asked what everyone feels about what’s being discussed.
Are people feeling positive for example? They’re excited, interested or energised about what they’re doing.
Or are they negative? They’re afraid, angry or frustrated.
Or maybe they’re not feeling much at all? Feeling neutral or indifferent about an idea or decision should also be captured under Red Hat.
Typically, you get more negative feelings come out under the Red Hat. People often fear the change a new idea or decision will bring. To explain where these feelings come from, you need to put on the Black Hat.
Black Hat - Risks
Wearing the Black Hat, people can share why they feel negatively about what’s happening.
They can explain what’s driving their fear, anger or frustration.
These aren’t necessarily bad things.
These feelings are all about being cautious. Caution is important for survival.
Any new idea always comes with a risk. The Black Hat helps people get the risks out in the open.
For example, in our stories about barriers to e-Commerce and marketing, most of the barriers were risks and fears. In Six Hats, we would call all those Black Hat thinking. People often worry about the current state of the business. Thinking about the future is hard.
Six Hats helps you identify these fears and risks that often hold up your progress. It gives a space for them to be included. But they get equal space with other perspectives rather than dominating the conversation. And you don’t have to address them till you’ve gone through all the other Hats.
Remember, everyone agreed to look at the problem from multiple perspectives at the start. For critics of an idea or decision, the Black Hat gives them the chance to share their fears without it killing off the whole idea. You weigh up the Black Hat thinking against all the other hats. In particular, you make a point of also looking at the opposite view to risks and fears.
Yellow hat - Benefits
Yellow Hat focusses on the benefits. It’s the positive opposite to Black Hat. It makes you think positively about an idea even if you don’t really like it.
Wearing the Yellow Hat, you think about everything positive that could come from an idea or decision.
Use this list of benefits to remind you why you’re looking at the idea or decision in the first place. It keeps you optimistic about the ideas.
Many benefits and few risks? Keep going. Few benefits and many risks? You may need to look at it in a different way.
Green hat - Creativity
It’s about giving people freedom to stretch their thinking. To come up with more innovative, less obvious answers. There should be no objections to any ideas put forward.
Green Hat’s aim is to build on or move forward with new ideas.
If people dismiss an idea, remind them that’s what the Black Hat is for. It’s not allowed under Green Hat.
Discussions under the other hats often trigger Green Hat ideas. You may want to dip in and dip out of Green Hat thinking as you go through the other hats to capture these.
The order of the hats
As we said earlier, there’s no set order to using the hats. You often start and end with the Blue Hat because that structures the thinking process. But there’s no rule to say you have to do that.
The order we’ve covered here – White – Red – Black – Yellow – Green – often works well. It takes you through facts then emotions, risks then benefits and finishes with a creative thinking. But, other orders can work well too. It depends what you’re trying to do.
You have to be flexible and adapt which hat to use as different conversations play out. Feel free to go back and forth between hats as the process evolves.
That’s a basic overview of the Six Hats. Now, to show it in action, let’s try using it on a business problem.
Six Hats - Case Study
Let’s imagine you’re the owner of a new pizza shop business. You’re trying to decide where (which suburb) to base your new restaurant.
You’ve done some segmentation and targeting work, but now need to decide. You’ll make the final choice, but you want to use the expertise of your team too. Your team on this is :-
- Amy – the head chef.
- Billy – the operations manager, who’ll be in charge of staff and deliveries.
- Christine – One of your investors, who has a 20% stake in the business.
You start the meeting wearing the Blue Hat and remind the team about the process.
It’s not the first time you’ve used the Six Hats approach with them, but a reminder is always good.
You remind them of the different hats and why different perspectives are important.
You outline the order you’d like to use :- white – red – black – yellow – green. Everyone agrees the White Hat is a good place to start.
Luckily, you’ve already gathered some facts about the different suburbs. Some work you did with a marketing coach helped you build an attractiveness model to help with your targeting.
For each suburb you’ve got population size, average price paid per pizza, and the number of competitors.
Combine those together, and it suggests that Suburb B looks the most attractive.
It has the largest population. But the price per pizza is lower than the other suburbs, and it has the most competitors.
Let’s gather more facts
Those facts are a good start for White Hat, but you ask if you need more facts to help with the decision.
Amy tells you she knows most of the competitors pretty well. She tells you 2 of the Suburb B competitors are local family firms with very good reputations. They’ll be tough to beat.
However, she also tells you 2 of the 3 competitors in Suburb A are franchises of national pizza chains. They don’t have such a good reputation. It’d be easier to take them on.
Billy jumps in and tells you he looked up some demographic statistics for each suburb.
Suburb A has a younger population with around 25% of the population under 30. That’s because it’s near a major university. There’s a lot of students who live in the area. It’ll be easier to recruit waiting and delivery staff where there’s a large pool of younger people to tap into, he tells you.
Christine points out older people tend to have more ingrained habits. It’ll be tougher to get people to switch from their current favourites in suburbs B and C. The younger people in Suburb A will be more open to trying something new.
You note all these facts on post-its and stick them up on the wall.
That’s a good start you say. But now I’d like to move on to some Red Hat thinking. How are we feeling about the different options here?
Amy goes first.
She’s worried about the competitors in Suburb B. Though she’s a great chef, they’re great restaurants too. She’s worried we can’t offer something better and different than them.
Billy jumps in.
He says he feels more confident about Suburb A, because finding staff is always a challenge. With a bigger pool of younger people to choose from, his gut feel is operations will run smoother in Suburb A than in the other suburbs.
Finally, Christine says she feels fairly neutral about all 3 suburbs.
She can see pros and cons in all 3 suburbs. The high price per pizza in Suburb C caught her eye. There might be a better profit margin there. But the lower population makes her worry if there’s enough scale. Profitability is important to her. She feels more positive about suburb A than B because of the extra $2 value per pizza – a 14% price premium as she points out.
So two hats down you say. It feels like Suburb B started in front based on the facts. But Suburb A is pulling ahead as we take a wider view.
You suggest moving on to look at the risks and challenges with each suburb.
Christine goes first with the Black Hat. She points out we haven’t looked at property prices yet. It’s likely the more attractive the suburb, the more it’ll cost to be based there.
That could hit profits.
Billy then points out both he and Amy live in Suburb C. If it was Suburb A they’d both have a longer commute to work. Suburb B and C would be less travelling distance for them.
Amy thinks about Suburb A and says because there’s only one really good pizza restaurant there out of the 3, people don’t associate that Suburb with good pizza. Suburb B is where people go for good pizza. For us to do well in Suburb A, we’d need to raise the “pizza quality profile” of the whole suburb. That could be a risk. With Suburb B, we’d be tapping into their existing reputation as being the area for good pizza.
You look at the board again. Black Hat thinking has given us some things to think about. But what about if we now flip it the other way? Let’s try to list out all the benefits for each suburb.
Billy goes first and focusses on Suburb A. It’s easier to recruit staff and there’s less competition. The price per pizza is better than Suburb B.
Christine goes next and focuses on Suburb B. It’s got the biggest population. People already know it as an area where you get good pizza. We can tap into that.
Amy finishes off. It feels like we’ve kind of ignored Suburb C because of the low population, she says. But that $20 per pizza average price has got to be worth something, right? And there’s only 2 competitors there, so we’d have a bigger share of voice in terms of where people could buy pizza.
In reality, you’d likely spend a lot more time on Black Hat and Yellow Hat thinking than we’ve done here. But you get the idea of the different types of conversation that go on wearing those different hats.
OK, you say, looking at your watch. We don’t have long left. We’ve got lots of great thinking already.
Let’s close with some Green Hat thinking. What could help deal with some of the Black Hat risks? Or what could build on the Yellow Hat benefits?
Billy jumps in first again.
Well, thinking about the commute and the travelling time for Amy and I, he says, I was wondering if we could do something with the food delivery firms to help with the travel.
They do ride sharing as well as food delivery. Maybe we could negotiate discounted travel rates for staff as part of signing up with them?
That’s a great idea, you say.
Christine’s been thinking about the average price per pizza in Suburb A. With 2 of the competitors being national chains, maybe there’s an opportunity to have a more distinctive upmarket competitive positioning. A menu that’s more authentically Italian using better quality ingredients and methods, for example. We could charge more and get better profitability that way.
Brilliant. Could we do that, you ask Amy as it’d be down to her to set that up.
We can definitely do that, she says. She’s been researching menu options and has a bunch of ideas already. She was also thinking that highlighting the wine range and showing how they pair well with certain types of pizzas. That could give us a more upmarket positioning compared to the Suburb A competitors.
Blue Hat to close
The Blue Hat comes back out to wrap up the process.
You point out the highlights from each hat.
The White Hat facts and the Red Hat feelings. You weigh up the Black Hat risks and the Yellow Hat benefits. And finally, you look at all those Green Hat creative thoughts.
Weighing all those options up, it’s pretty clear to you which suburb is the one to go for.
Conclusion - Six Hats
You likely have your own thoughts about which Suburb you’d choose if it was up to you. (We’d have gone with Suburb A in case you’re wondering).
From this example though, you can see how looking at a problem from the Six Hat perspectives gives you a more rounded view of an idea or decision.
Six Hat thinking is a great way to set up constructive conversations and get to better, faster ideas and decisions that everyone can support.
Look back at our Six Hats case study example. Look how constructive it was. How little arguing there was.
You got different points of view. Everyone felt heard. You could calmly pick out the highlights to make the best decision.
We take our hat off to anything that helps you do that.