Edward de Bono first put forward his idea about six ‘thinking hats’ in 1985. The idea was picked up (inevitably) by management training firms, though its popularity has waxed and waned over the last 35 years. Some may consider it an old-fashioned approach, but we feel that it may have something to offer when thinking about thought leadership.

A quick summary of the ‘thinking hats

De Bono described six ways of thinking, which he characterised with different coloured hats. They were:

  • The White Hat is all about facts. When you are wearing the white hat, you are gathering facts and information and looking for ways to fill gaps in your knowledge. 
  • The Red Hat is all about feelings and emotions. It is, effectively, the ‘flip side’ of the white hat: when you are wearing it, you are thinking about how things feel, and what emotions they might arouse in others.
  • The Yellow Hat is about optimism, and seeing what benefits will accrue from this idea. It allows you to look at your idea or proposal with ‘rose-tinted spectacles’, and see only the good that will arise.
  • The Black Hat is about difficulties, dangers and risks. It is therefore the opposite of the yellow hat. Some people describe this as the judgemental hat, but fundamentally, wearing it means you are looking for problems. It is powerful, but should not be used too often.
  • The Green Hat is all about possibilities. It allows you to look for creative solutions to the difficulties, without worrying about whether they are feasible or not.
  • Finally, the Blue Hat is about managing the thinking process, and using the other hats correctly. People often talk about the chair in a meeting wearing the blue hat, but anyone can use it to suggest that it is time to turn to a different coloured hat.

A systematic approach

The idea behind this is that it enables you to use a systematic process to examine an idea or proposal from all angles. It can therefore prevent people from looking only at the benefits, or making judgements based on the facts, without thinking how it might feel. You can use this technique as a checklist for your own thinking, to make sure that you have thought everything through systematically.

However, the approach is particularly useful in groups, where you can get a much broader perspective. Its use helps to avoid pitfalls like groupthink, where groups make poor decisions in the interests of group harmony, or the Abilene paradox, where a group collectively decides to do something that individually none of them would have chosen to do.

Six thinking hats in thought leadership

The six thinking hats can be used in any sort of problem-solving situation. It is, therefore, unsurprising that it might have merit in thought leadership.

Thought leadership, at its heart, is about identifying and then solving customer problems. Six hats thinking can help you to think through problems more systematically. However, as we said above, it is also at its best used in group settings. But thought leadership is not a committee activity—or is it?

Is thought leadership really a team sport?

There may be a case to be made that thought leadership is more of a ‘team sport’ than has previously been considered. That does not mean that you need a committee to develop your thinking—especially not a committee of experts from within your organisation. Instead, you should consider developing a partnership with your customer and your content distributor (your marketing colleague). 

Expertise-driven conversations take on a whole new meaning when you are really trying to explore and understand a problem, and then co-create a solution. By using the six hats approach, you will avoid your own tendency to see your solution as the answer to everything (the yellow hat) or your customer’s tendency to see the problems (the black hat). Instead, you can work together to gather facts (white hat), and examine the emotions involved (red hat), then use the green hat to find creative solutions.


The bottom line

As with any technique designed to help you to think differently, de Bono’s thinking hats has pros and cons. We think that its structure and simplicity make it particularly helpful as a tool in thought leadership. It is quick to use, and an easy way to structure a discussion to ensure that you have thought everything through. Why not try it, and let us know how you get on?


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