Six Thinking Hats

Reviewed on , book by Edward de Bono

The main takeaway from this book is a mental model for 6 different types of thinking, how they complement each other, and that each problem deserves to be viewed from at least these 6 angles. It’s a quick, easy read and I recommend it for this alone.

In the Six Thinking Hats, de Bono advocates for running meetings in a fashion where everyone performs the same type of thinking, ‘wears the same hat’, at once. By default, people will simply put on the hat they have the strongest propensity for, without calling it out, creating time-wasting arguments. The hats are: Healthy pessimism (black), forward-looking optimism (yellow), creatively generating new ideas (green), gut-feeling and emotion (red), and returning to the facts (white).

While the author suggests incorporating the ‘hat vocabulary’, for many teams this will be a stretch and seem silly. This is a common criticism of the book, but it doesn’t invalidate the method. I often see it play out that people wearing the ‘black’ hat and ‘yellow’ hat clash, because it’s not clear they are fundamentally attacking the problem in complementary ways. The person with the black hat might think the person with the yellow hat has rose-coloured glasses on, and the person with the yellow hat might think they’re counter-productive and negative. You need both of these to get meaningful things done, and I find it useful to have a way to classify the thinking—even if I wouldn’t use the vocabulary directly (although I do think in this vocabulary).

The format suggested is that the entire group will wear one hat at a time, only using that type of thinking. Each individual will add something with this type of thinking, then move on to the next. This can surface a lot of information in a short time, and it ensures that everyone is on the same page as to what angle the problem is being approached from at any given time. Some may excel under different hats, but now that’s recognized, rather than always saying that Susan is negative, and that Bob spends too much time in Lala-land.

One key take-away I had was that often in “Western-thinking”, as de Bono calls it, we argue primarily with the black (criticism) and white hats (facts), masked over a red hat (emotion and intuition). We all have an intuition as to how we think something should be done—but we have an aversion to talking about a ‘gut feeling’, without any evidence (white-hat). With this type of thinking, the red hat solves the problem by clearly letting people express their intuition about a problem so it’s not a hidden in agenda when wearing all the other hats.