The de Bono Hats system (also known as “Six Hats” or “Thinking hats”) is a thinking tool for group discussion and individual thinking. Combined with the idea of parallel thinking which is associated with it, it provides a means for groups to think together more effectively, and a means to plan thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive way. The method is attributed to Dr. Edward de Bono and is the subject of his book, Six Thinking Hats. The paternity of this method is disputed by the School of Thinking.

The method is finding some use in the UK innovation sector, is offered by some facilitation companies and has been trialled within the UK civil service.

A compelling example presented is sensitivity to “mismatch” stimuli. This is presented as a valuable survival instinct, because, in the natural world, the thing that is out of the ordinary may well be dangerous. This state is identified as the root of negative judgment and critical thinking.

Six distinct states are identified and assigned a color:

  • Information:

    – considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
  • Emotions

    – instinctive gut reaction or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
  • Bad points judgment

    – logic applied to identifying flaws or barriers, seeking mismatch
  • Good points judgment

    – logic applied to identifying benefits, seeking harmony
  • Creativity

    – statements of provocation and investigation, seeing where a thought goes
  • Thinking

    – thinking about thinking

Coloured hats are used as metaphors for each state. Switching to a state is symbolized by the act of putting on a coloured hat, either literally or metaphorically. These metaphors allow for more complete and elaborate segregation of the states than the preconceptions inherent in people’s current language. All of these thinking hats help for thinking more deeply. The six thinking hats indicate problems and solutions about an idea or a product you might come up with. Furthermore, Dr de Bono asserts that these states are associated with distinct chemical states of the brain — however, no details or evidence of this are presented.

Having identified the six states that can be accessed, distinct programs can be created. These are sequences of hats which encompass and structure the thinking process toward a distinct goal. A number of these are included in the materials provided to support the franchised training of the six hats method; however it is often necessary to adapt them to suit an individual purpose. Also, programs are often “emergent”, which is to say that the group might plan the first few hats then the facilitator will see what seems to be the right way to go.

Sequences always begin and end with a blue hat; the group agrees together how they will think, then they do the thinking, then they evaluate the outcomes of that thinking and what they should do next. Sequences (and indeed hats) may be used by individuals working alone or in groups.

Whilst the ideas of the hats themselves provide significant benefits, there is more to the six hats method as applied within de Bono thinking systems and as trained under his franchise. In particular the phase at which the hats are used is highly relevant.

Typically in use a project will begin with an extended white hat action, as everyone gets “on the same page” creating a shared vision of the issue being addressed. Thereafter each hat is used for a few minutes at a time only, except the red hat which is limited to a very short 30 seconds or so to ensure that it is an instinctive gut reaction, rather than a form of judgment. This pace is believed to have a positive impact on the thinking process, in accordance with Malcolm Gladwell’s theories on “blink” thinking.

This ensures that groups think together in a focused manner, staying on task, it also ensures that they focus their efforts on the most important elements of any issue being discussed. However, it also has the potential to create conflict if not well facilitated, since people can feel “railroaded”. To avoid this it is important to notice when there is any significant difference of opinion on the thinking process or the area in which it should focus.

Using a variety of approaches within thinking and problem solving allows the issue to be addressed from a variety of angles, thus servicing the needs of all individuals concerned. The thinking hats are useful for learners as they illustrate the need for individuals to address problems from a variety of different angles. They also aid learners as they allow the individual to recognize any deficiencies in the way that they approach problem solving, thus allowing them to rectify such issues.

de Bono believed that the key to a successful use of the Six Think Hats methodology was the deliberate focusing of the discussion on a particular approach as needed during the meeting or collaboration session. For instance, a meeting may be called to review a particular problem and to develop a solution for the problem. The Six Thinking Hats method could then be used in a sequence to first of all explore the problem, then develop a set of solutions, and to finally choose a solution through critical examination of the solution set.

So the meeting may start with everyone assuming the Blue hat to discuss how the meeting will be conducted and to develop the goals and objectives.

The discussion may then move to Red hat thinking in order to collect opinions and reactions to the problem. This phase may also be used to develop constraints for the actual solution such as who will be affected by the problem and/or solutions.

Next the discussion may move to the (Yellow then) Green hat in order to generate ideas and possible solutions.

Next the discussion may move between White hat thinking as part of developing information and Black hat thinking to develop criticisms of the solution set.

Because everyone is focused on a particular approach at any one time, the group tends to be more collaborative than if one person is reacting emotionally (Red hat) while another person is trying to be objective (White hat) and still another person is being critical of the points which emerge from the discussion (Black hat).