Think back to the last major decision your team made together. Was there a struggle to get everyone to offer input? Did one person dominate the discussion? Did everyone quickly rally around one idea without exploring alternatives?

The brilliance of a diverse team is that each individual has unique perspectives to contribute to the larger picture. But tapping into those insights can be a challenge when multiple people are involved in a discussion – especially when a team is tasked with making a difficult decision.

If you’re seeking a more balanced, systematic approach that makes room for everyone’s voice, try the Six Thinking Hats. Below, we’ll explore this decision-making tool that teams at IBM and NASA have used to break down biases and tackle tough choices.

Six Thinking Hats: what is it and where did it come from?

Physician, psychologist, and author Edward de Bono conceived of the Six Thinking Hats and describes how it works in his 1985 book of the same name. In this role-playing exercise, participants “put on” six different metaphorical hats that each represent a certain type of thinking.

According to de Bono, the Six Thinking Hats method serves two main purposes:

  1. It eliminates confusion by focusing the discussion on one aspect of the decision at a time, such as potential risks or possible benefits.
  2. It encourages more expansive thinking so a person does not get boxed into only looking at the risks, or conversely, only focusing on the benefits.

De Bono asserts that Western thinking is based on an argument system, where one person makes a statement and another challenges it. The Six Thinking Hats offers an alternative: parallel thinking. 

“Parallel thinking means that at any moment everyone is looking in the same direction,” de Bono writes in Six Thinking Hats. While argument focuses on “what is,” parallel thinking looks at “what can be.”

By looking in the same direction at the same time, the entire team can collaborate on a solution and continuously move the discussion forward, instead of getting mired in debate, resulting in more balanced decision-making.

How it works

In his book, de Bono encourages the use of bits and pieces of his technique and its nomenclature in a variety of situations. You can use the hats in everyday workplace conversations as symbols to request a type of thinking. However, the Six Thinking Hats method as a formal, structured sequence (which we’ll describe below) is best suited for:

  • Complicated or significant decisions
  • Decision-making discussions involving multiple people
  • Discussions in which you’re having a hard time getting everyone to participate (e.g., one person is doing most of the talking or a couple of people are hesitant to speak up).
  • Brainstorming sessions where you need to cover all the bases and possibilities thoroughly
  • Any situation where you want to explore options and ideas more holistically and be inclusive of everyone’s thoughts and feelings

Step 1: Define an issue to discuss. Six Thinking Hats sessions should be focused on a particular problem that needs to be solved or a decision that needs to be made.

Step 2: Assign the blue hat to one person. The blue hat is the meeting leader who starts and ends the discussion and announces when it’s time to change hats.

Step 3: As a group, go through each hat, one at a time. How much time should your team spend under each hat? De Bono recommends one minute per attendee. So if five people are present, dedicate five minutes total to each hat. If you need to go over, you can extend the time, but de Bono recommends keeping each “hat session” brief and focused. 

Step 4: Define the outcome. By the end of the session, your team should be able to make a decision and decide on the next steps.

The six hats defined

Let’s use an example to illustrate how a team might use the Six Thinking Hats to have more productive discussions and make better decisions faster, based on de Bono’s method.

Problem statement: Since going hybrid in 2021, usage of our office space is low, while rent continues to rise. Do we stick with the hybrid work model or ditch the commercial office space and return to being fully remote, or is there an even better option?

With this problem statement in mind, let’s cycle through each of the six hats and show how they might be used to solve this issue.

🔵 Blue hat: moderator

When you think of the blue hat, think of the sky overhead: all-encompassing. Under the blue hat, you’ll be “thinking about thinking.”

More on the blue hat

One person wears the blue hat – in essence, acts as a moderator – for the entirety of the session, but all attendees are asked to participate in two “blue hat sessions”: one at the beginning of the discussion to frame the conversation and one at the end to define the outcome and next steps.

All the other hats are “worn” by the whole group together.

Whoever puts on that blue hat is the neutral moderator who: 

  • Kicks off and ends the meeting
  • Frames the intent of the discussion and sets the agenda
  • Announces the change of hats
  • Poses questions
  • Enforces rules
  • Asks for the outcome of the discussion
Questions to considerExample statements
What should we be thinking about?

Is this discussion productive so far?

Is this the real problem, or is there something else we should explore?
“I think we’ve strayed from the defined scope of this discussion. Let’s refocus on our hybrid work model and possible alternatives.”

“My blue hat thinking is that the real issue isn’t low office space usage or rising rents. The real issue is a lack of employee connection.”

“Putting on my blue hat, I think we should pause and summarize the main points of the discussion so far.”

⚪️ White hat: information

The white hat is concerned with “just the facts.” White-hat thinkers remain neutral, looking only at the available information without making interpretations about it. Under the white hat, you may put forth facts that are doubtful (beliefs), but only if you make it clear that you’re unsure of their veracity. If necessary, you can fact check them later.

Questions to considerExample statements
What do we know?

What do we need to find out?

How can we get that missing information?
“Our latest pulse survey showed that 76% of employees prefer working from home every day.”

I believe I read about a study that shows teams feel more connected if they come into the office at least once a week.”

“In the past year, 25% of our employees came into the office at least once a week.”

🔴 Red hat: emotions and instinct

When teams put on the red hat, individuals are free to voice their emotions, but not explain or justify them. The red hat phase is about normalizing and legitimizing gut feelings, which is an important part of the decision-making process that often gets ignored.

Note: Your team should spend as little time as possible under the red hat – you want people to express their gut reaction, without overthinking or explaining. You might need only one minute total for everyone to share their red hat statements.

Questions to considerExample statements
How do you feel about this idea?

What is your gut reaction to this?

Do you have any hunches?
“I have a feeling that the people who use the office space are doing it because they feel obligated to.”

“My gut tells me that this hybrid model is a bad idea.”

“My red hat thinking is that team morale will fall without an in-person space to meet.”

⚫️ Black hat: Risks

The black hat is the lens of caution. Black hat thinking requires you to consider the potential risks and how you might tackle them. Note that it is not a bad hat, but an essential one that could save money, time, and a variety of other headaches. In fact, de Bono calls the black hat “the most valuable of all the hats and certainly the most used.”

Questions to considerExample statements
Should we move forward on this decision?

What are some weaknesses of this option?

If we choose this, what could go wrong in the future?
“I see a danger in holding onto commercial office space because the economy is unstable and rent and inflation are on the rise.”

“We risk missing out on top talent if we require employees to come into an office.”

“If we don’t adopt an async-first policy, going fully remote won’t solve our problems because we’ll still be forcing a distributed team to work odd hours when they’re not at their peak productivity.”

🟡 Yellow hat: Benefits

Like sunshine and smiley face emojis, the yellow hat conjures up positivity and optimism. Wearing the yellow hat requires you to identify the benefits of a suggestion and think of ways to put an idea into motion. De Bono warns that yellow hat thinking is harder than black hat thinking because humans are naturally sensitive to danger. That’s why the yellow hat is so crucial: it inspires us to find the value in an idea.

Note: Yellow hat thinking must be backed by evidence; otherwise, it’s just a positive feeling, and therefore would fall under red hat thinking.

Questions to considerExample statements
How could we make this idea work?

What are the strengths of this option?

If we choose this, what could go right in the future?
“In the best possible scenario…” Use this to test how good of an idea it is. If the idea still has subpar outcomes even in the best possible scenario, perhaps it’s not a very good idea.

Example: “In the best possible scenario, rent prices stabilize, inflation returns to normal, and more teammates start taking advantage of the office space. Then the productivity and camaraderie we gain will be well worth it.”

“I have this vision…” Use this to rally people around exciting possibilities and inspire them to take action.

Example: “I have this vision of an office-less future that’s more equitable, and through the use of technology, harnesses remote collaboration and connection.

🟢 Green hat: Creativity

Use divergent thinking to generate fresh ideas in your next brainstorm

When faced with a decision, people have a tendency toward tunnel vision, seeing only option A or option B when there might be an option C, D, and so forth. The green hat mitigates this bias by encouraging creative solutions that otherwise might not be considered. It is also the green hat’s role to come up with solutions to the challenges presented under the black hat.

Questions to considerExample statements
What is interesting about this idea?

What does this idea lead to?

What are some alternatives?
“What about reducing the office space instead of getting rid of it entirely?”

“Could we cut costs by switching to coworking spaces instead?”

“We haven’t yet considered going back to fully on-site work again.”
Creating a shared language

Beyond the structured process described above, you can use the Six Thinking Hats informally in a variety of workplace situations. For example, if you sense that a colleague has a bad feeling about a business deal you’re about to close, you might say: “Hey, what’s your red hat thinking on this?” Framing the question in that way frees up people to express emotion, which can be difficult to do in a workplace. The Six Thinking Hats creates a shared vocabulary and symbolism that you and your team can use to communicate more effectively and direct your ways of thinking.

How to reach a decision using the Six Thinking Hats technique

By the end of a Six Thinking Hats session, you’ll have accomplished something that teams stuck in the argument style cannot: You’ll have included everyone in looking at every aspect of a problem, together. This ensures balance, fairness, and as little bias as possible. 

To close the discussion, the designated blue hat wearer asks the group what they’ve concluded. Thanks to the balanced discussion and new insights gained through this role-playing exercise, your team should naturally arrive at a decision and define next steps.

But what happens if you reach a stalemate? Interestingly, de Bono himself recommends that if you’re still stuck on a decision, go with your gut.

“In the end, all decisions are really ‘red hat,’” he writes. “We lay out the factors but the final decision is emotional.”

Six Thinking Hats: use parallel thinking to tackle tough decisions