Brainstorming is one of the most important and widely used means to innovate. However, brainstorming sessions are often not as productive as expected due to ego clashes, arguments and lack of focus. A leader in creative thinking, Edward De Bono, developed the six thinking hats technique that overcomes most of the pitfalls of regular brainstorming. The technique proposes and explains six directions (or hats) of thought. Wearing only one hat at any given point in time helps an individual (or a team) focus on various aspects of the topic of discussion in a non-confrontational manner, thereby creating considerable synergy and enabling the brainstorming to be much more fruitful and productive. Furthermore, the use of lateral thinking triggers and catalyzes creative thinking and expands the scope of both the problem, as well as the solutions generated.
Why Six Thinking Hats?
Human brains think along multiple directions at the same time. This way of thinking is extremely efficient when quick decisions need to be made. The brain reduces the complexity of data through fuzzy logic or "bucketization." However, when a problem or issue needs to be thought through in detail, the brain needs to resist fixing on a pattern too quickly. This is notoriously difficult to achieve, even at an individual level. In a team brainstorming session, this problem worsens. Solutions can be quickly jumped to even while the problem is not fully understood, ideas can be shot down even before being fully developed and solutions can be pointed out as infeasible without the opportunity to consider them.
De Bono proposed the separation of directions of thought into the six thinking hats. By forcing one or more brains to think along one direction at one time, most collisions are avoided and synergy is considerably increased. The technique also encourages the use of lateral thinking approaches leading to increased brainstorming productivity.
There are six distinct "hats," one for each direction of thought.
White Hat (Data, Facts and Figures)
While wearing the white hat, all available data is put forth. Data can be both within (and outside) the scope of the discussion, effectively deferring judgment of data. There is a focus on neutral facts and figures. Participants can include opinions of others, where the opinion becomes the fact irrespective of whether the opinion is believed to be accurate or not. It is important to be specific about data to reduce ambiguity as much as possible. Overall, the objective is to facilitate a deeper understanding of the breadth and depth of the relevant issue with the neutral deposition of data on the table.
Red Hat (Emotions)
The red hat is the hat of emotions. Emotions can be positive (happiness, joy, wonder, enthusiasm, hope, expectation), negative (anger, disappointment, mental-blocks, jealousy, cynicism) or neutral (intuition, complex emotional judgment, curiosity). It is important to be free from obligations to effectively wear the red hat. The objectives of the red hat are to lend credibility to "emotional" thinking, help feelings surface (rather than remain hidden yet play a major part in the discussion) and free the participants from having to justify emotions, complex judgment or intuitive thoughts. This adds a new dimension to both problems and solutions.
Green Hat (Ideas)
The green hat is the hat of ideas. By removing judgment and feasibility analysis from the scope of the discussion, participants are free to generate crazy ideas that may not be immediately relevant or feasible. New ideas can be constructed from other ideas generated and pooled at the table. The setting is ripe for lateral "out-of-the-box" thinking. In the green hat phase, a team consisting of individuals from varying backgrounds, age groups, cultures and having different perspectives to the issue becomes a fantastic asset, rather than a liability, to brainstorming. The objective of the green hat is to generate as many (and as varied) ideas as possible.
Yellow Hat (Positivism)
This is the "be positive" hat. Positive aspects of the issue are stressed. A positive outlook toward problem solving is maintained. The focus is on "how-to-make-it-happen" rather than "how-this-may-not-work." Ideas from the common pool (the ideas are now not tied to the individuals who generated them) are picked up for further development. The positive factors are noted. All possible positive effects of an idea are noted and discussed. The objective is to be positive about "making-things-happen" and understand all the benefits of various ideas.
Black Hat (Critical Judgment)
The black hat is the hat of caution and judgment. All constraints are noted down. The scope of the issue may be fine-tuned. Feasibility of ideas is evaluated. Pitfalls and shortcomings are identified. Problems and ideas are prioritized based on relevance or impact. A cautious approach is used. Participants can play the "devil's advocate," discuss worst-case scenarios and identify bottlenecks and weak links. The objective of this hat is to critically evaluate and judge issues and ideas, and converge on a specific problem or solution areas.
Blue Hat (Control and Overview)
The blue hat controls the flow of the brainstorming session – what hat to wear, when and for how long. The agenda and timelines are decided. There can be a discussion on the sequence of hats to be used. Typically, the controller of the session wears the blue hat to guide the session and ensure that all participants continue to wear one hat at a time. The blue hat is used to arbitrate and re-focus. The blue hat is also used to summarize and conclude.
Lateral Thinking Triggers
One of the key impediments to thinking "out-of-the-box" is psychological inertia – the inertia of experience and core competence. It can be extremely difficult to break out of strong patterns that the brain is used to. To this end, De Bono recommended several lateral thinking triggers. Fractionation, reversal, analogies and random provocation are simple to apply and beneficial, especially while wearing the white and green hats.
Fractionation means breaking a topic into natural or artificial segments, develop them independently and then looking at new ways of bringing the segments back together to restructure the topic of discussion in a different way. The initial fractions or segments generated are likely to be along rigid, known patterns. The idea is to generate alternative ways to segment a specific issue or scenario; the segments do not have to make immediate sense. Fractions do not have to be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, each person can generate different fractions based on his/her perspective of the issue or scenario. Fractions generated in this manner can then be merged to bring out novel perspectives on the discussion topic and generate new threads of thought.
Reversal is a provocative way to generate alternative patterns. The idea is to artificially invert or reverse the issue or scenario. This guarantees breaking-out of rigid patterns. Often, the reversed scenario will be crazy, infeasible or comical. Reversing can happen in multiple ways (there are no preset types of reversal): e.g., cat catches the mouse can be reversed as "mouse catches the cat" or "cat does not catch mice" or "cat releases the mouse" or "cat catches the mouse with its tail instead of the mouth." After reversal, the new alternative scenarios are often potent in generating new radical threads of thought.
Analogies are situations or scenarios similar to the topic of discussion in some way, but different enough to facilitate generation of new thoughts. For example, an analogy for a military crisis could be a pressure cooker or an avalanche. Once a suitable analogy is identified, the nuances of the analogy are described without looking back at the original problem. The scenario in the analogy is discussed in detail. Emerging thoughts are then applied to the topic of discussion to generate new perspectives and ideas.
Sometimes, patterns can be so rigid that even the use of fractionation, reversal or analogies results in the generation of the same rigid patterns. In such cases (or even otherwise), random provocation can provide the necessary jolt. Random provocation involves the use of random words as triggers to generative alternative patterns. Random words can be picked up from dictionaries, newspapers and books or generated by the participants themselves. With no apparent connection between the random word and the topic of discussion, participants are forced to think laterally to generate a new link or thought perspective.
- Brainstorming using six thinking hats is most productive when the participants come from varied age groups and backgrounds thereby bringing different experiences to the table.
- All participants should wear the same hat at any given point in time.
- Wearing the hats in a time-bound manner helps maintain focus and progress.
- When the team wears a hat, it is beneficial for each participant to individually pen his/her thoughts and then consolidate the ideas at the end.
- The hats can be worn in any sequence and as many times as required. The sequence of white, red, green, yellow and black is a good sequence to start with when another pattern is not obvious.
- Judgment, caution and cynicism should be completely avoided (easier said then done) while wearing the white, red, green and yellow hats.
- Lateral thinking triggers like fractionation, reversal and analogies are very useful while wearing the white and green hats.
- The random provocation trigger can be very useful while wearing the green hat.
Implementing structured brainstorming sessions directs individuals and teams to innovative solutions.
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