Bruce, Brittany, Al, John, and I attended the Agile and Beyond conference in Dearborn, MI last weekend. Two of my favorite presentations of the conference were Brittany’s awesome presentation on low fidelity UX and Michael “Doc” Norton‘s presentation “Teamwork Ain’t Always Easy,” a series of hands-on exercises demonstrating techniques for resolving common problems in teams of all sizes.
One of the techniques that stood out the most was “Six Thinking Hats,” a way to achieve parallel thinking during group meetings. Over the course of my career, I have sat through many meetings where (after an afternoon of discussion) the only thing that had been determined was who had conflicting personalities and view points. An afternoon filled with point/counter-point often resulted in people shutting down and keeping their good ideas to themselves.
But meetings utilizing parallel thinking are often shorter and more productive. The goal of parallel thinking, when used in groups, is to avoid adversarial debates and to unify discussion along a specific direction at a time. Six Thinking Hats is a simple and effective technique (created by Edward de Bono) to achieve parallel thinking in group discussion.
Parallel Thinking with Six Thinking Hats
The technique consists of six metaphorical hats, each of which define a specific type of thinking. Every person of the group must be wearing the same color hat at the same time, ensuring that everyone in the group is focused and thinking about the same subject in the same manner.
Throughout the course of a discussion, each of these hats will be used multiple times, requiring everyone to take off a hat of a certain color, realign their thoughts, and put on the hat of a different color. This results in parallel thinking, increased productivity, less adversarial debates and happier, healthier discussion. The hats are a metaphor and used to quickly synchronize the group along a certain line of thinking. (Real hats of specific colors do not need to be used.)
When wearing the white hat, you should be neutral and objective. You should be concerned with facts, figures, data, and information. This is a good time to present data, identify what information is missing, and identify desired information. The important thing about white-hat discussion is to be neutral and objective.
When wearing the yellow hat, you should be optimistic and positive. This is a good time to discuss benefits and positive views of feasibility. If you don’t have something nice to say, save it for a different hat.
When wearing the black hat, you should be critical, careful, and cautious. Feel free to play devil’s advocate and point out weaknesses in ideas. This is also a good time to evaluate costs, regulations, and design.
When wearing the green hat, you should be creative — brainstorm new ideas and approach things from a different angle. This is also a good time to discuss alternatives and changes. Green hat discussion is strictly about presenting new ideas; leave the analysis of each idea to a different hat.
When wearing the red hat, you should discuss things from an emotional view with no justification. This allows you to put forward your held view point without need for explanation or apologies. This is a good time to bring forth your gut feelings and intuition.
The blue hat is the most important and is unique from all the others. Only one person can wear the blue hat per meeting, and it comes with privilege of being the facilitator. Without the blue hat, the conversation is going to be absolute chaos. Instead of arguing about our problem, we would be arguing about which hat we should be wearing.
On top of participating in the current color of discussion, the facilitator’s job is to think about where the conversation is going, keep it on topic and guide it by choosing hat colors. The facilitator must also call out violations: if the black hat is currently in play and someone is being sunshine and rainbows, then the facilitator must nicely remind that person to save it for the yellow hat.
The facilitator must also be good at reading the crowd and temporarily allowing others to choose a color for the discussion. Most importantly, the facilitator must know when to end the conversation, summarize the discussion, and ask for a consensus, conclusions, or decisions if appropriate.
The metaphor of a hat doesn’t need to be used. The power in this technique lies with getting all ideas and perspectives out on the table with everyone thinking and collaborating in a parallel and productive way. For more information, check out the book “Six Thinking Hats” by Edward de Bono.