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You can keep your hat on (but try a different one sometimes)
on January 25, 2002
Edward de Bono does not suffer from a small ego. The first sentence of the preface to his book is: "The Six Thinking Hats method may well be the most important change in human thinking for the past twenty-three hundred years." Digest this and two more pages of obnoxious self-advertisement that follows. Then put the book down. After an hour continue to read the rest of the book. It is worth while.
Essentially, "Six Thinking Hats" is about improving communication and decision-making in groups. De Bono's style is accessible, succinct, well-structured and easy to follow. It is not with a certain justification that he claims that "his work is in use equally in board-rooms of some of the world's largest corporations and with four-year-olds in school." Well, where is the difference, anyway?
What de Bono wants to achieve is to structure thinking and make it more effective. "Thinking often proceeds as drift and waffle and reaction to what turns up from moment to moment. [...] Suggestions, judgements, criticism, information and plain emotions are all mixed together in a sort of thinking stew," he writes. The six "thinking hats" are different ways of looking at an issue that has to be decided: under the white hat one presents the facts, under the red hat one says how one feels about the issue, under the black hat one looks at the negative effects of the decision, under the yellow hat one looks at the positive effects of the decision, under the green hat one thinks of alternatives, and under the blue hat one clarifies which kind of thinking is going on. Overall, thinking becomes clearer when the different parts that go into it are brought into the open.
The idea of the "hat" has the advantage that it allows people to play with a new perspective. People who argue by criticism, for example, can remain mostly critical. But by putting on the red hat they can voice their emotions, or by putting on the yellow hat they can think about positive effects. Western thinking tends strongly to focus on "black hat thinking," says de Bono: "At a Western-style meeting the participants sit there with their points of view and in many cases the conclusion they wish to see agreed upon. The meeting then consists of arguing through these different points of view to see which survives the criticism and which attracts the most adherents." De Bono wants to get away from this judgmental, confrontational style towards a more open, positive, creative and playful way of discussing.
De Bono's model tries to make discussions more rational. It acknowledges the importance of emotions in decision-making, and tries to separate them from the facts and from the positive or negative implications of the decision: "once the emotions are made visible, then a thinker is more free of them". But making the discussion more transparent and structured is not enough. De Bono's model needs a "facilitator", a person who puts a "blue hat" on, someone who organizes the discussion and leads it.
In the world of business, discussions are very often about power. The "six thinking hats" model requires a very enlightened, open-minded "powerful" person to work, or very assertive, courageous "less powerful" persons.
What are the problems with power? A person in power can abuse his "blue hat" position, for example. Or the culture of the company can be built on "black hat" critical thinking, where "yellow hat" positive thinkers tend to become scapegoats when things go wrong. "Red hat" revelations of the emotions behind one's point of view or "green hat" creative ideas are not forthcoming when power games are being played. People in power can abuse any of the six thinking hats. Here the book could profit from some ideas about how to deal with the abuse of power in communication. But having said that, I want to stress that it was stimulating to read this book, and I found it very interesting to analyse my own thinking under the "hat" categories of de Bono.