Dr. John Young Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville



Thinking Differently

            Thinking is our greatest human asset. Bad thinking processes and habits, as individuals and as cultures, greatly diminish our abilities to: get along, solve problems, or fulfill our potentials. As William James said, “a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” My wife and I heard Edward De Bono interviewed about lateral thinking on public radio in New Zealand more than a year ago. Lateral thinking seemed intriguing! Some months ago, Andrew Kouroupis, a member of the present LEAD or UUCJ leadership development class was telling Kathleen about De Bono and lateral thinking. Then, there was a news article; so, we got his book, Six Thinking Hats, and read it aloud. I highly recommend it.


            Edward De Bono holds advanced degrees in medicine and psychology, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Harvard. He has authored more than 40 books and consulted with governments and corporations. He is regarded by many to be the world’s leading authority on the teaching of thinking as a skill. His CoRT program is used in secondary schools. Six Thinking Hats was published 21 years ago. It may be the most significant change in human thinking since Aristotle.


            Twenty three hundred years ago, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle developed the basic ideas of traditional Western thinking: a process of critical analysis and argument. Socrates emphasized dialectic and argument. 80% of the Platonic dialogues attributed to Socrates have no constructive outcome. They clarify concepts like justice and love by pointing out incorrect arguments. Plato argued that people only perceive shadows of the truth. Ultimate truths are hidden behind appearances. Aristotle provided a system of inclusive/exclusive logic. ‘What is’ was to be determined by analysis, judgment, and argument. De Bono believes that the traditional Western model of thinking is excellent but insufficient. It is often good for standard situations but inadequate for constructive thinking and creativity. It assumes that everyone arrives at a discussion with fixed perspectives and argues among themselves until they get to some conclusion. It is as if everyone is looking at a complicated reality from different perspectives and simply continues arguing that their perspective alone is the correct one.


            De Bono’s alternative lateral or parallel thinking proposes that everyone who is part of a discussion or thinking process needs to agree to go around together and consider the problem or situation from the different perspectives, one at a time, as a team. Rather than approaching thinking as only critical analysis and argument, he proposes that all participants engage in six different types of thinking together, mapping out the situation, and, then, deciding: what reality is, how problems need to be dealt with, and when they will know that they have reached a satisfactory conclusion. Many non-Western cultures are not based upon an argument thinking process. The Japanese, for instance, think they are together to listen not to argue, and believe that ideas emerge as seedlings, to be nurtured and allowed to grow into shape. De Bono’s Six Hat Method presents us with an alternative to the argument thinking process.


            The six types of thinking are represented by six colored hats: the White Hat which is neutral and objective, facts and figures, the Red Hat which gives the emotional view, the Black Hat, which is somber and serious, cautious, careful, and critical, the Yellow Hat, which is sunny, positive, and hopeful, the Green Hat, which is growth, creativity, and new ideas, and the Blue Hat, which is cool, the sky above everything, the organization of the thinking process, thinking about thinking. The six thinking hats can be used by individuals on their own but is particularly helpful for groups who need to cooperate. The six thinking hats can be used singly to request a particular kind of thinking, but they can also be used in sequence to explore a subject or solve a problem. Here are some summary details about each of the six thinking hats.


            The White Hat is useful at the beginning to determine the facts and figures about a situation and then again at the end in assessment determining whether the proposals or solutions chosen fit with the existing information. Information can range from hard facts to soft information like opinions and feelings, but not your own feelings, which would be Red Hat, but rather public opinion or market data. Asking for White Hat is for the relevant facts and figures in a neutral and objective manner. Truth is a word-game system known as philosophy. Facts are related to checkable, practical experience. The key in White Hat thinking is to frame the facts appropriately. Most facts are probabilities rather than absolute truths. Some facts are hard facts, but many facts are simply believed-to-be true facts. Most facts have a spectrum of likelihood; so, White Hat thinking is a discipline and a direction, usually contextual, seldom unquestionable.

            The traditional view is that emotions muck up thinking, yet any good decision must be emotional in the end. Our choices are determined by values and emotions. Emotions give relevance, fit thinking to our needs and the context of the moment. In any particular situation, people may start with strong background emotions, like fear or distrust. Later in the thinking process, emotions may be triggered so that some one feels insulted, that another is pursuing a selfish interest, or is giving too much away because of love or devotion. Red Hat thinking officially gives participants permission to express their feelings. It gets the emotions on the table so that they may be faced and dealt with. When a group is doing Red Hat thinking, every one in the group expresses their feelings about the situation. No one passes, and no one is allowed to continue to dominate because of their strong feelings. In Red Hat thinking, there should never be any attempt to justify the feelings or to provide a logical basis for them. The feelings are perceived, noted, and the thinking process continues. Red Hat thinking gives intuitions legitimacy.


The very artificiality of Red Hat thinking is central to its value. People express their emotions and hear others’ feelings safely and move beyond them. In the end, the purpose of thinking is to satisfy expressed emotions; so, any solution needs to be tested against these emotions. The desires of one party may be at the expense of another. There may be conflicts between short-term satisfactions and long-term satisfactions. Emotions are often fickle and inconsistent. Red Hat thinking makes emotions visible so they may become part of the thinking map; participants can switch in and out of feelings, and explore the feelings of others safely.


The Black Hat is the basis of critical thinking, the most used and most important. Humans have a built-in mechanism for Black Hat thinking, the ‘mismatch.’ The brain forms patterns of expectation. When something doesn’t fit, we feel uncomfortable. Black Hat thinking is as important to thinking as food is to the body. Food is good, but you can eat too much of it, or eating could become too central to life. Some people abuse Black Hat thinking; they spend all their time being critical and cautious. They see everything as good or evil, right or wrong, true or false, but much of real life and most of real value is not all one or the other.  In the six hat process, when you are doing Black Hat thinking, you get to be critical, but the rest of the time, it is not permitted. People who normally abuse Black Hat thinking are often liberated by six hat thinking because they can be unabashedly critical during the Black Hat thinking, and then they discover that they can be effective thinkers in the other thinking modes too. Black Hat thinking helps people to be appropriately cautious at the beginning, to decide whether to proceed in the middle through risk assessment, to access weaknesses as they proceed, and, then, to weigh the process itself at the end. In the Six Hat process, no one is allowed to interrupt with critical comments, but is asked to accumulate their criticisms and share those when the Black Hat is being used. Black Hat thinking is about ‘fit:’ how past experiences, strategies, resources, and known facts fit, and have there been procedural errors in the thinking process? Black Hat thinking puts the caution points on the thinking map.


Yellow Hat thinking is the balance for Black Hat thinking. It is the task of seeking out values in ideas presented. Yellow Hat positive thinking and making things happen empower human progress. Yellow Hat speculates on value and benefit. Yellow Hat remains logical. It is not a con-man or optimistic to the point of foolishness. It is not the faith of the lottery or the hope for a miracle. It is at least possible and is more likely probable or even likely, if vigorously pursued. In Red Hat, you just express your feelings. In Yellow Hat, you need to find the support for your and other’s optimism, but you do not have to completely justify your hopes.  It is not enough to train critical minds. We need to spend as much effort training people to think constructively and generatively.


Yellow Hat is not creative or new, that is Green Hat. Yellow Hat may be routine, used elsewhere, known before, or a construction put together from known elements. It develops proposals and, then, it assesses the potential and possibilities of those proposals and builds them up, constructing their hopeful implications. A great Yellow Hat thinker does not need to be creative or especially clever, but simply willing to put forward and carefully and positively consider hopeful solutions and processes. Yellow Hat thinking is speculation, hope, and conjecture. It is the thinking of investors and entrepreneurs. Certainly if the benefits are poor in the best possible scenario, then the idea is not worth pursuing. Yellow Hat thinking is learning to envision the best possible scenarios and the maximum benefits. It is visionary thinking. It weighs both the benefits and the feasibility. It is opportunity thinking and its aim is effectiveness.


Green Hat thinking is creative thinking: energy, growth, new ideas, options and alternatives. Without a creative framework of possibilities, people have trouble seeing beyond the available information to new ideas. Analysis and logical deduction alone will not create one new thing or process. Creative people set aside time simply to be creative. You keep making the effort until you get better at it. Our brains seem designed for recognition, judgment, and criticism. Creativity falls outside of our established patterns and methods; so, it seems contradictory to our regular ways of thinking. De Bono invented the term ‘lateral thinking’ in 1967; it is now in dictionaries. Lateral thinking is precisely concerned with changing concepts and perceptions. It is pattern switching in an asymmetric patterning system. It works like humor, cutting across to a new pattern that suddenly makes sense. It changes the way we perceive, replacing judgment with movement, looking forward rather than backward. It uses provocation. De Bono took the provocative idea that everyone would become a policeman and initiated the concept of the neighborhood watch, spelling it out in New York Magazine in April of 1971. The concept is now used in more than 20,000 communities in the United States.


Green Hat thinking is the idea of nurturing a seedling, of taking a vague idea and shaping it, extracting a new principle from useful stepping stones. The key to Green Hat thinking is that judgment is replaced by movement: What is interesting, different, or suggestive about this idea or where does this idea lead? Creativity usually needs the provocation of a problem and often benefits from an unplanned mistake or accident, like the contamination of a culture dish with penicillin. In Green Hat thinking, you do not sit around waiting for provocations, you produce them deliberately. De Bono invented the term ‘Poto symbolize this deliberate nurturing of provocation and movement. For instance, a water polluting factory should always be required to place its own water intake system downstream from its pollution creation outflows.


Provocation forces us out of our regular patterns. We may be unable to do anything; we may fall back into our old patterns, but we may instead find new ways to behave. In a provocation, its positive effects justify its value, which was unknown in advance. Green Hat thinking is looking for viable alternatives of perception, explanation and/or action. It requires creative pauses; it can challenge the framework, but it does need to respond positively to the problems at hand in order to maintain its viability. Certainly some people appear to have a special creative personality or talent, but everyone can develop their creativity skills, and most people can become competently creative. In Green Hat thinking, we are not just looking for the final creative solution; we are busy harvesting creative ideas throughout the process, shaping usable ideas and discovering people able to carry out the ideas.


In Green Hat thinking it is important to have a concept manager that looks after the ideas in the same way a finance manager looks after the financial details. The Concept Manager collects the Green Hat thinking. Then, Yellow Hat thinking is used to assess its benefits and values. Then, Black Hat thinking is used to determine whether it will work and is needed. Then, Red Hat thinking is used to decide whether the group likes the idea enough to proceed. People are unlikely to proceed without enthusiasm.


Critical thinking or the process of evidence and argument often proceeds by drift, waffle, and reaction, assuming that if people are provided with information that they will, after discussion, choose the most suitable options. Critical thinking is a Darwinian evolution or survival of the fittest, with the harsh pressures of the environment being replaced by the harsh pressures of negativity. Students are asked to write the conclusion in the first line of their essays and then to support that conclusion. It is a courtroom process based on experience and prejudice refined by argument, attack and defense.


Blue Hat thinking is thinking management. At the beginning of a Six Hat session, every one gets involved in Blue Hat, planning the thinking process. Usually in Six Hat thinking there is a facilitator, chairperson or leader that maintains a Blue Hat role, keeping the discipline and ensuring that people keep to the relevant hat, normally a permanent role, at least for that session. At the end of a session, everyone puts on the Blue Hat again and forms a conclusion, and lays out the steps that are to follow.


People will tend to revert to their critical thinking habits, but the manager can insert the Six Thinking hats into the discussion and change the dynamics. Asking the right questions is often the most important part of thinking. Some questions are exploratory, fishing questions; others are shooting questions, which are used to check out a point which has a direct yes or no answer. Most of the time Six Hat thinking will consist of occasional interventions in the course of normal discussion/argument type thinking, with occasional requests for a specific type of thinking. A powerful way to treat opposing ideas is to suppose that each one is correct under certain circumstances. What would be the best home for this idea? However, it is also possible to have a formal program that lays down a sequence of steps.


De Bono is proposing a mapmaking type of thinking in which the terrain is first explored and noted. Then the possible routes are observed, and finally a choice of route is made. Blue Hat thinking is designing the software for a particular thinking process: areas of agreement, areas of disagreement, and irrelevant areas. If there are strong feelings to begin with, you need to bring in Red Hat thinking to get those feelings out in the open. Then, White Hat to get the relevant information out, sought, and explored. Then, Yellow Hat to put forward the existing proposals and suggestions. Blue Hat thinking might define focus areas and where new concepts are needed. Green Hat thinking would then try to generate some new concepts, perhaps with each participant taking a creative pause. A mixture of White Hat, Yellow Hat, and Green Hat might then be used to develop and take forward the different proposals, with Yellow Hat assessment and then Black Hat critique, and further Black Hat to point out risks, dangers, and shortfalls. Then, Blue Hat to spell out what has been achieved and to organize the going forward routes. Now, use a mixture of Yellow and Black to choose the best alternative, and then Blue Hat to consider how the chosen solution is to be implemented. It is important to have a process observer to watch the process and write down the generated alternatives. In practice, the hats often flow together, but the benefits are in having a formal method and process to return to and to proceed with.


The biggest enemy of thinking is complexity, for that leads to confusion. When thinking is clear and simple, it is more enjoyable and effective. Six Hat thinking simplifies thinking by allowing all the participants to deal with one thing at a time, and it allows everyone to switch thinking together during the process. It can provide negative signals to disruptive individuals in a respectful and inclusive fashion. It turns the thinking process into a game in which every one wins by cooperating and turning their energies and strengths in the same direction together.