Seeing problems sideways on: use Six Hats thinking with your startup team

Edward de Bono died last month, one of our greatest C20th thinkers, aged 88. Born in Malta to a family boasting seven generations of doctors, on his mother’s side he was possibly descended from Napoleon. His study of self-organising systems convinced him that the brain could be organised differently and taught to operate creatively and ‘outside the box’ – he coined the phrase ‘lateral thinking’, akin to getting us to think in reverse gear to rearrange the patterns of thought to get out of a blind alley.

De Bono believed that the main difficulty of thinking was confusion, where we try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope and creativity all crowd in on us. It’s like juggling too many balls at once. To help alleviate this confusion he devised the brainstorming approach of Six Thinking Hats, ensuring a variety of perspectives are considered so we grasp others’ points of view, and make discussion more productive than debate.  

Trying to walk north and south at the same time would be pointless and exhausting. Similarly, your brain works best when it can focus on one type of thinking at a time. If it’s looking for danger, let it look for danger uninterrupted. If it’s creatively breaking existing patterns to make new ones, let it do that. Conducting a systematic mental exploration of a problem allows you to draw a detailed map of the context for any decision you need to make. With this detailed map in hand, your decisions will be thoroughly considered such that the best route will become obvious.

As a startup founder creativity is a key entrepreneurship skill. Creativity and empathy are hard to replicate in the algorithm, at least for now.  A regular dose of creativity from the most striving entrepreneur can craft a unique user experience and attract more customers. Also, the enterprising mind takes a creative way to make an impact on society. In the highly competitive startup arena, creativity in combination with having an open mind helps to lift a fledging venture to success.

As Einstein said, creativity is intelligence having fun, but the trouble with having an open mind is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it. To be creative means thinking differently to most people, and that takes courage. People very rarely understand the creativity of others, so you are better off doing it for you. Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. If you follow the rules, you cannot be creative. This is the paradox of the innovation.

Which is where de Bono’s Six Hats thinking comes in as it directs you on ‘how to think’ rather than ‘what to think’. It simplifies thinking by maintaining focus on one element at a time and allowing a change in thinking while minimising conflict. Why Hats? Well, there’s apre-existing association between thinking and hatsvia the phraseput your thinking cap on which captured de Bono’s own imagination. A hat is easy to put on and take off. This mirrors the six different thinking styles, which you can call upon in a flexible and effortless manner.

As de Bono says, our normal thinking process is a tangle of six different types of thinking. We can improve the quality and efficiency of our decisions by untangling these six thinking types (symbolised by six hats of different colours) and deploying them more consciously. His brainstorming approach requires us wear imaginary different coloured hats and adopt that perspective:

White Hat (data & facts) The white hat offers a neutral questioning approach – what is the available information, what are the facts we have? The aim of these questions is to provide objective data, facts and figures about the idea to be discussed. The white hat is used at the beginning and end of a session to concentrate on the facts or data available at the outset, and then used at the end of a session to question ideas derived from using the other hats.

Red Hat (emotions & feelings) The red hat represents feelings and improves the insight into the ideas using your intuition and emotion about an idea – questions include what do you feel about the idea, what is your gut reaction? The aim of red hat is not the understanding of the reason behind these feelings, but different emotional reactions to the idea.

Black Hat (caution & risk) Using the black hat, you are navigated to think about an idea defensively, to focus on risks to spot difficulties or weak points to see if an idea may not work. The questions to ask here include what are the potential risks of this idea? why the idea might not work?. The purpose of this hat is to explore and test viability.

Green Hat (creativity) The green hat represents creative thinking with the objective to generate new ideas, possibilities and alternatives out – it’s the ‘thinking outside the box’ when anything should be considered. With this hat, you can develop additional new solutions to enhance the original potential: how might we? No constraints operate with the green hat.

Yellow Hat (optimism) In contrast to the black hat, the yellow hat focuses on logical optimistic assessment of an idea, to improve the understanding of the advantages and benefits, and helps identify the value of the idea: what are the potential advantages of this idea? It is used after the green hat process to consider the merits of ideas generated.

Blue Hat (control) The blue hat takes an overview of the idea and represents process. This hat is metaphorically worn by the organiser of the brainstorming meeting, setting the propose, objectives and agenda, and then the wash-up on action plans and next steps. It is also used to summarise and conclude the potential of the idea: What is the problem we are dealing with? What are we trying to achieve in dealing with the problem? What will be the benefits of solving this problem? What is the best and most effective way to approach the problem? 

The Six Hats can be used in any order during an innovation discussion. However, by using the hats in order you can direct a discussion in a more logical fashion. The order below will provide a flow for any meeting or discussion: blue; white; green; yellow; red; black. Even with this order in place a facilitator can reintroduce a hat that they feel is appropriate to the discussion. For example, it may be felt that the solutions identified using the green hat need to be interrogated, so participants can wear a white hat to dive into the facts around those solutions.

The Six Hats divide neatly into pairs. The white hat is about information, while the red hat is about emotions. The black hat is negative, while the yellow hat is positive. The green hat encourages creativity, while the blue hat focuses on process. It’s worth noting that the black hat and the yellow hat are broadly equivalent to the red team and the green team in the Red Team, Green Team exercise.

By organising the thinking process using the Six Hats method during an innovation session, you can ensure a balanced idea analysis from different standpoints. Each participant needs to have the opportunity to ‘wear’ each hat in order to achieve a better understanding of the idea potential.To see how you might use the approach in your own startup, let’s consider an example:

A new high-end Greek food takeaway (my dream startup venture!) is getting a growing number of customer complaints after just three-months of opening as they are having to wait too long for their food – it’s so popular! How can they solve this problem?

Pete, the takeaway founder, has a team of six who work in a variety of roles. As the emporium is closed on a Sunday, Pete asked the team to come in for a half-day brainstorming session to address the challenges and introduces the team to Six Hats thinking before breaking them into three groups, mixing up front of house, kitchen and admin staff to create some diversity in thinking.

Pete schedules six 15-minute rounds of Six Hats thinking. He facilitates the group, considering the problem from the perspective represented by their hat colour. They are asked to write their thoughts and ideas on post it notes, keeping them for the end of the six sessions. Once everyone has worn all the hats, Pete facilitates the group to share their thoughts for each hat, giving the team a full picture of the problem from all perspectives. In this process, each person wears the same hat at the same time, to encourage collaboration and minimise conflict.

This was the outcome from the sessions:

Blue Hat – when wearing the blue hat, folks would be asking themselves:

  • We are trying to improve customer satisfaction and reduce complaints by improving the speed at which we are able to make food;
  • The benefits of solving the problem are improved reputation and more business
  • The most effective way to solve the problem could be to get a new, improved kitchen equipment, addressing the process for making food as it is currently inefficient.

 White Hat – when wearing the white hat, they would be asking:

  • How many complaints are we getting that relate to the problem of waiting times and the speed at which we can serve food?
  • How long does it currently take to make the average takeaway? Do solutions exist and if they do, what impact could they have on speed?
  • What is the cost of possible solutions?

Green Hat – when wearing this hat, the team would be positive and innovative, looking for fresh ideas outside the box:

  • What are we missing? Can we fundamentally change the way we make food?
  • Could we reinvent the workplace to make us leaner and more efficient?
  • What are other takeaways doing and how can we do it better/different?

Yellow Hat – when wearing this hat, the team would be optimistic, thinking of all good things that will arise from the solutions they uncovered in the previous green hat round:

  • What are the ways in which this idea can improve our speed in making food?
  • What are all the positive outcomes that can come from this idea, in addition to reducing complaints and speeding up food production?
  • What are the reasons why we should implement this idea?

Red Hat – wearing the red hat, everyone will throw out their negative feelings. They might try questions like: 

  • What things could go wrong?
  • What does my gut tell me about why this won’t work?
  • Is this idea too expensive, too much work?

Black Hat – for each green hat idea and red hat negative, wearing the black hat they might try to answer questions like:

  • Will this go wrong in practice?
  • Are there ways to mitigate the things that could go wrong?
  • Is the reason I have for not liking this idea a valid one?

The interplay of these different thinking styles encourages their use in a structured way to develop a higher quality of ideas. The beauty of de Bono’s hats is their simplicity. They are easy to implement in your own work and are a great tool for team working and collaborative problem solving as they empower people to work together with a common perspective in mind. By defining the perspective for the group, the benefits are a reduction of negativity, conflict and prevent confusion from trying to grasp too many angles from many voices simultaneously.

De Bono understood that discussions can easily become biased or adversarial, where the goal is simply to win the argument, not to reach the best solution. Even in situations where teams share common goals, diverse thinking styles collide and block each other, hampering the creative process.  If you’re looking for ways to dramatically cut your decision-making time, create democratic process or increase your team’s creativity, the Six Hats method can help.

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