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When I first encountered Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process in the early 1990s, it was already considered old hat, a fad of the previous decade when the lateral thinking expert had released his book. But I find myself increasingly returning to it because the method works wonderfully for group discussion. It is also effective for thinking through a problem on your own, since the six elements cover the main aspects to consider.

If you’re not familiar with it – many millennials leading meetings may never have heard about it – the approach requires you to successively put on a different thinking cap and, during that period, focus intently on just one angle:

  • White hat: Concentrate on facts, figures and information. Keep the suggestions pure, like the colour white, free of opinion.
  • Black hat: Give free rein to your negative judgment, checking why ideas won’t work. These days “red teaming” is a new idea organizations are applying to test thinking; this covers that.
  • Yellow: Try some sunshine, focusing on the positive – the good points and opportunities offered.
  • Green: Be fertile and creative, seeing what unexpected insights you can develop. This fits with the current thrust for innovative thought and so-called integrative thinking, where you look at opposites and see if they can be combined.
  • Red: Test your emotions and feelings, hunches and intuition. Decisions where these are overlooked can get derailed later.
  • Blue: This colour conjures the sky, as once all the ideas are on the table, you have to bring them together into a workable plan.

When carried out by a group, a big advantage is that everyone focuses on one hat, or frame of mind, at a time. That method inhibits a key frustration of meetings, where people interested in different aspects of the problem talk past each other.

So if you’re talking about an advantage of the proposed course of action, Joe can’t submarine you with two negatives. And if someone has a tendency to always be negative on new proposals, you can say gently, “Joe, you have your black hat on. We’ll get to that later.” It’s a gentle way of reining in Joe while also sending a reminder that he won’t be shut out; his turn will come. It can also force the idea’s chief proponent to address the negatives.

Many of us have used pro-con lists for decisions. This includes that tested formula – black and yellow hats – but extends beyond it. First, there is clarity on the facts, which is very helpful for a group prior to getting into opinions. I usually find it helpful to list what facts we need to get information on as well.

The green hat asks you to think beyond the narrow framework you may have fallen into and to conceive new possibilities. This is where the best decisions are often made. But it can’t necessarily happen on demand, so often this falls flat. You are moving from left brain to right brain and it needs some time. Whether doing this alone or in a group, it’s healthy to discuss the purpose of the green hat and then take a break – even 10 minutes, but perhaps resuming on another day – so ideas can percolate. Looking for how to turn some of the negatives into positives can also help.

The red hat can also be difficult, as people at work are often afraid to admit to their intuition and hunches, let alone more emotional feelings. It’s hard to say “I tense up when we consider this change” or “I am so furious we are even thinking of doing this” in a world where change is supposed to be embraced. But those emotions are there. Ignore them at your peril (and that’s true, as well, when you are working alone and may be afraid to admit to your feelings since decision-making is supposed to be rational).

The blue hat is back to the comfortable area of planning. Usually a lot has come out. Now, develop a workable plan for the future.

You can use the method regularly for decisions, only for a single meeting or as the lingo becomes familiar call upon it spontaneously for just one hat: “Let’s put on our green hat for a moment.” It’s simple but works because it covers the way we make – or should make – decisions.


  • The Trans Mountain pipeline fuss reminds us that instinctively people want a tough leader who will force others to bend to his or her will. And in our organizations, if those disagreeing are subordinates, leaders can force them to agree. But when we lack such control – as exemplified by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s meeting with Premiers Rachel Notley and John Horgan – agreeing to disagree (before resuming combat) may be the only course of action. Leaders need to distinguish which style fits the situation.
  • Have real conversations with older employees about what they want in terms of careers, rather than making broad assumptions, says HR consultant Tim Sackett. And develop programs and benefits specifically designed to retain older workers.
  • Just as audit committees on boards of directors have evolved into looking at strategic financial allocation, compensation committees have to move from focusing on CEO remuneration to the development of talent, with a new name, perhaps talent and rewards committee, says Talent Wins authors Ram Charan, Dominic Barton and Dennis Carey.

· Have real conversations with older employees about what they want in terms of careers, rather than making broad assumptions, says HR consultant Tim Sackett. And develop programs and benefits specifically designed to retain older workers.

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