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Inspired BlogPut on Your Thinking Caps! | A Simple Exercise for Driving Better Team Outcomes

Here at RV, we’re proud to work with many talented, innovative tech professionals who power our tools and platforms – including Amber Mitchell, an Engineering Manager on our RV Education team. Last fall, Amber took to the RV HQ stage for our RUN. Tech Summit to share the “thinking hats” concept – a thinking strategy originally developed by Edward de Bono, and one that she utilizes with her team regularly to drive better outcomes. Get Amber’s breakdown of “thinking hats” below and give it a try with your own team!

Thinking is a skill. The way we think about problems, both large and small, affects our decisions and outcomes. For intelligence to be activated and useful, we need to develop thinking skills. Good thinking utilizes a variety of thinking strategies. 

Moreover, thinking is a habit. So we need strategies that we can remember and reproduce in many situations.

Edward de Bono came up with this idea of thinking hats, and I have enjoyed using the technique for many years, with good results. According to some sources, the thinking hats technique has been used by folks at NASA, IBM and FedEx and many others, but I first used it with preschoolers. (So trust me – anyone can use it!)

The thinking hats help us to split types of thinking into separate, parallel tracks so that we can think more efficiently and effectively. It is an alternative to the argument system, which is more focused on critical thinking than constructive or creative thinking.

Let’s explore the six hats, and the contribution each type of thinking makes to the whole. 

The Six Hats

The yellow hat represents optimism and hope – benefits and advantages. While wearing this hat you may say things like, 

  • “What are the good points?”
  • “’What are the benefits?”
  • “Why will this idea work?”

The black hat helps us with risk assessment. It exercises caution and judgment. It can help us foresee problems. This hat puts forth questions like, 

  • “What could go wrong?” 
  • “What would make this not work?” 

It helps prevent mistakes and excesses.

The white hat is neutral. It focuses us on facts and figures, and emphasizes what we know for sure. Some questions for white hat thinking are,

  • “What facts do we know?”
  • “What information is missing?”
  • “How are we going to get the information?”
  • “What is relevant?”

The red hat influences thinking with feelings. It honors hunches and intuition. Some common questions might be, 

  • “How do I feel about this right now?”
  • “How am I reacting to this?”

The blue hat controls the process. It brings discipline and focus. It is blue to represent the sky, the 20,000-foot view. The blue hat can play a role in organizing the problem into manageable sections. For example, you are wearing the blue hat when you decide what order of hats to use. You can ask questions like,

  • “When should we discuss this?”
  • “What decision have we reached?”
  • “What do we do next?”

The green hat symbolizes new ideas, concepts and approaches. It is for creative, generative thinking. Green hat questions may include:

  • “What are some possible ways to work this out?”
  • “What are other ways to solve the problem?”
  • “What alternatives do we see?”

The way I speak while using my green hat sounds like this: “I have a weird idea that probably won’t work, but here it is. Anyone else have a new idea or want to bounce off mine in a different direction?”

Putting the Hats into Action

You can structure a meeting with just a few of these hats, as needed. For example…

Here are some ways I use the hats during meetings, even without calling them out as such. 

  • When I want to put on the white hat, I like to use a screenshare of notes being taken or pseudocode, or draw simple diagrams. Visual presentation is powerful for making ideas concrete, bounded and actionable.
  • If I notice a meeting tending toward a lot of catastrophic black hat thinking, or sunny yellow thinking, I tend to ask for the opposite… but only after giving space for the first hat to run its course.
  • I use the end of meetings for my red hat. I express my enthusiasm for the work we are doing. I express gratitude to my team. I draw an image of the goodness I see ahead as we work together for a better workflow, a better process or project, whatever it is. I put labels to feelings, and I find that it adds meaning to the work we are doing. 

You know who’s great at using the red hat?

That’s right. Ted Lasso.

The Benefits of the Hats

The difference between argument-style, point/counterpoint, and critical-thinking approaches versus the thinking hats approach is summed up well in this little story.

Let’s say we have four people talking about this house. One is standing looking at the front side of the house. One is at the back, and two on the sides. They all have different points of view … and they are all valid points. But they aren’t going to get very far very fast in explaining the whole house to one another.

Instead, what if they all come around to the same side of the house where they can examine this part from the same viewpoint? This is parallel, or lateral, thinking. They all can now point in the same direction, and walk around together to see the whole thing. This is like putting on the same hat at the same time. The hat is just a direction, not a destination. 

Maybe you canvas all the risks, or you look just at the benefits, or pause and do a gut check on hunches with the red hat. The key is: Everyone is pointing their thinking in the same direction at the same time. This leads to more balanced discussion. Instead of making the discussion about who is right, it keeps a focus on the problem being solved or the direction being chosen.

Think, then Think Again!

de Bono said, “The main difficulty of thinking is CONFUSION. We try to do too much all at once. Emotions, logic, hope, and creativity all crowd in on us.” 

Knowing one’s own thoughts is an enabling power. Skilled thinking helps teams come to good, well-thought-out decisions – in often a surprisingly short time! As we give room for each of the types of thinking, without trying to counterpoint every point, the types tend to run their course naturally. 

Often, the experience of sequencing the hats well is that the decision, when it comes time, strikes everyone as clear, even obvious. There is more confidence in moving forward.

And now, here’s my red hat moment: Thank you for reading my post on the Six Thinking Hats! 

Now, go think on it a bit.

Source: Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono

Loved this article? There’s more where that came from – keep learning with our tech experts right here!

About the Author:
Amber Mitchell

Amber is an Engineering Manager with RV’s Education organization. She started her web engineering career with Microsoft in the '90s and dot-coms in the 2000s, after which she brought her trade home as a remote web developer and mom. In the twenty-teens, she was helping universities and non-profits modernize their tech approaches with things like experience optimization and decoupled stacks. In addition to her engineering work, she is passionate about technical mentorship and helping remote / hybrid teams thrive. Find her on LinkedIn:

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