Skip to content

The value of Six Hats creative thinking

Woman wearing a blue fedora hat

Share This Post

Why read this? : Six Hats is a creative thinking process developed by the creator of lateral thinking, Edward De Bono. Read our brief summary of the process and the pros and cons of using it. Then see it in action as we use it on a business problem case study. Read this to learn the value of using Six Hats 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?

Six Hats aims to improve problem solving and decision making.

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. 

Three business women having a meeting - the creator is thinking 'good idea', the critic is thinking 'bad idea' and the coaster is thinking 'no idea'

It forces everyone to look at the problem or decision from 6 different perspectives. Each perspective has its own colour hat. You start “wearing” one colour of hat and think using that perspective. Then you change hats, and that signals a change in the way you think.

You keep going until you’ve worn each hat. You collate all the outputs from the different perspectives at the end. That gets you your final solution / decision.

The benefits of the Six Hats approach

His book outlines many benefits to this approach. There’s 3 that stand out :- 

Better solutions

First, 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)

It forces you to gather facts, consider people’s feelings and emotions, weigh up risks and benefits and think creatively.

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. 

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

Faster solutions

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 which 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.

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

Positive cultural impact 

The Six Hats process also moves you away from individuals arguing their solution / decision is best. It has a positive cultural impact on problem-solving and decision-making.

It forces everyone to try out different views, and be more open to there being 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).

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

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 from a collated view of everyone’s best inputs collated 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

First, 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.

Wooden law gavel on a plain white background

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 operations way of thinking. This isn’t always an easy thing to do.

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.

Creative and operations - diagram showing differences between two different ways of working

That’s why it’s important to explain the benefits of the process. Show people it helps you create breakthrough ideas and deliver better decision-making which will improve the operations side of the business. 

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 the full details on the Six Hat process, check out the book and the website

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 X type way of thinking”.

(Using actual hats is optional by the way). 

Graphic showing Problem to solve in the centre and six different colour hats with different thinking styles

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. 

Arrow shaped sign on a brick wall saying entry

Wearing the Blue Hat at the start means you explain how the process will work. It also works well as the last hat to 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 to take an objective view and gather information whicht 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.

Two men holding pencils comparing notes on a piece of paper in in front of macbooks

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 that wearing one of the other hats.

They should focus instead on the feelings themselves. Red Hat asks what everyone feels about what’s being discussed.

White round badge with a read heart symbol against a dark grey background

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. 

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

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 which 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 worn all the other Hats. 

Remember, everyone agrees 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’re against it.

Wearing the Yellow Hat, you think about everything positive which 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.

Close up of a hand with thumb up

Green hat - Creativity

Thinking of things a different way is where the Green Hat comes in. It’s similar to brainstorming. You generate ideas without judging them. The more ideas you come up with the better. 

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.

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

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 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 already done some market attractiveness work, but now need to make a final decision. You’re the final decision-maker, 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. 
Sydney Pineapple Pizza Company mock up company image - says Bondi Beach, has two pineapple icons, a large pizza slice in the background and superimposed on image of a turquoise sea.

Blue Hat

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 – blue. Everyone agrees the White Hat is a good place to start. 

Woman wearing a blue fedora hat

White Hat

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.  

Market segment attractiveness - pizza shop example

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. 

Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

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. 

Red Hat

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. 

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

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. 

Black Hat

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.

hand showing a thumbs down

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. 

Yellow Hat

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. 

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

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 which happen with different hats.

Green Hat

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.

Close up of a man's hands holding a light bulb that's illuminated

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.  

Isn’t it?

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

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.

Graphic showing Problem to solve in the centre and six different colour hats with different thinking styles

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. 

Check out our creative problem solving guide for more ways to think creatively about how to solve problems. Or contact us if you need to help to find new ways to think more creatively.

Photo credits

Blue Hat – Photo by Celine Ruiz on Unsplash

Three women sitting together (adapted) : Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Bulb on Post it : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Wooden Gavel : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Entry : Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Two people with macbooks and notepads :  Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Heart Button Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Thumb up/down (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Person holding light bulb : Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash

Lens : Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Frustrated Man (adapted) : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Share this content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest blog posts

Subscribe to get three-brains updates