February 26, 2020

How to run better meetings and make faster decisions — lessons I learned from the Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono is a name that I recognized from when I was younger. When I was younger, I was extremely interested in these book of puzzles called ‘lateral thinking puzzles’ – essentially they are puzzles that require you to think about and question some of the assumptions that you have. For example, here is a lateral thinking puzzle for you: a man buys 3 bananas for a dollar and sells 5 bananas for a dollar. In the process, he becomes a millionaire. How?

With a lateral thinking puzzle, someone asks the puzzle and reads the answer. Those that are solving the puzzle are allowed to ask any yes or no questions that they want – only questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Of course, when I was young, I would look at the puzzle and then read the solution right away – I didn’t have anyone else that I could ‘play’ the puzzle with so I cheated a little.

At a recent used book sale, I saw Edward de Bono’s name and was happy to realize that he had written a number of books on lateral thinking and critical thinking in general. This is one of his books – the book title refers to his strategy for running better meetings and making faster decisions.

I want to share what the book is about (though I won’t be able to do it justice by describing it here – it’s something that you will have to read and then experience through a skilled facilitator) before I share my overall thoughts on the book.

Six thinking hats

The six thinking hats are: white, red, black, yellow, green and blue. Each of the hats represent a way of thinking. Edward suggests that this framework of using ‘hats’ is easy to understand as everyone likely has the experience of putting on a hat, but what’s different is that by putting on a hat, you will be thinking differently about a specific topic or problem.

The problem, Edward suggests, is that when you go into a meeting, everyone has a different agenda. Some people want to speak up so that they are seen and heard. Some people want to be ‘right’ and prove that others are ‘wrong’. Others have their department or team’s perspective in mind and nothing else. Yet others have specific strengths and so will only talk if the meeting topic asks for their expertise (say, those that consider themselves as creative thinkers). One of the reasons why meetings take longer than their allotted time is due to these conflicting agendas with everyone in the meeting room. One of the reasons why he created the six thinking hats is to help align people to a specific purpose so that everyone in the meeting is working towards a common goal. My own analogy of this is people in a rowing boat – if everyone is rowing in different directions, you’re not going to end up anywhere; however, if you are all rowing in the same direction, the boat will move much faster than if everyone was rowing in random directions.

What are the six thinking hats?

White hat – facts and figures

The white hat is often the first hat used in meetings – when people wear the white hat, they share all the facts and figures that they know about something. They don’t make any specific observations on the facts or figures, but can if it is supported by the information available. For example: “the revenue of our company is on a downward trend these last three years. It was at $1,000,000 in Year 1, $800,000 in Year 2 and $750,000 in Year 3.” The causes or implications of the downward trend would be explored through a different hat. An easy way to remember this is to remember that white can often mean blank and objective.

Red hat – emotions and feelings

Red signifies anger, fury, and feelings. Therefore, when people wear the red hat, they are sharing their feelings about a specific topic or situation. In this case, they do not need to justify the things they say logically, though they could if they wanted to.

Black hat – considerations, risks, challenges

Black signifies the night, darkness – when people wear the black hat, they are talking about all the risks, challenges, impediments that might come from an idea. From many of the meetings I have attended (and I have attended a lot), people tend to wear the black hat a lot. The problem is not from wearing the black hat, but from wearing the black hat all the time and challenging every single idea that comes into the meeting.

Yellow hat

Yellow represents the sun, positivity and optimism. When you put on the yellow hat, you are focused on the positives and the benefits of an idea. Sometimes, there does not appear to be any benefits, but that’s when you really have great insights because once one benefit appears, others may appear as well. For example, having a number of countries send and detonate nukes to each other may not have any benefits at first, but if you look hard enough, there may be something there (such as being able to start over), which would then lead to insights in other ideas.

Green hat

Green represents vegetation and growth. When you put on the green hat, you are focused on creativity and generating alternatives to ideas and situations that challenge assumptions. For example, suppose you are in a meeting trying to generate ideas for a product that you are selling. You can either raise prices, lower prices or keep them the same – are there any other options?

Actually, there are – you can raise prices and then lower them (how much will you raise and lower prices? how long will you wait?) or you can both raise prices and lower them (that is, create a premium product and a more affordable product).

One interesting way to ‘inject’ some creativity into something that may not at first appear to have alternatives is to pick a random word out of the dictionary and use that word as what Edward calls ‘movement’. Suspend your judgment and critique for a second. For example, let’s say that you are trying to inject some creativity into something that has been established for a long time – say elevators. Elevators hasn’t changed much from when I first saw them to when I see them now. Choose a random word from the dictionary (preferably nouns). I went online and searched for a random noun -> homework. Homework is something you do after school. It’s an assignment from a teacher. You hand it in and you get grades or feedback. Perhaps there’s a way to provide feedback to the elevator ride so that it can ‘learn’ from each of the rides that it gives – similar to how there’s a rating system for Uber drivers or restaurants. Here, I’m not searching for the best ideas, all I want is movement because from one idea comes another, and then another.

Blue hat

We come to the blue hat. Blue signifies the sky – it is above all of us at all times. The blue hat is the facilitator and they think about the thinking that’s going on in the meeting. They can suggest meeting participants to change hats, they can keep everyone thinking in the same hat, but they are mostly there to help make sure that people are all moving in the same direction.

Takeaways from the book

  • Using a structure such as the Six Thinking Hats helps everyone move in the same direction. By putting on a single hat at a time, you can help everyone think along the same lines and minimize judgment or arguments.
  • The key to each of the hats is ‘movement’ vs. ‘judgment’. All too often, we are thinking about all the downsides of an idea that is presented – again, the key here is to suspend judgment and to focus on movement
  • I can see this requiring a bit of an upfront investment in education and learning. You have to teach people how to use the framework and have a skilled facilitator, but I can see that the meeting will be much more efficient when everyone knows how to use it and follow the rules

Oh and if you’re stumped for the puzzle at the beginning, the answer is that the person was a billionaire and by buying 3 bananas for a dollar and selling 5 bananas for a dollar, he lost money and thus became a millionaire.

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