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Parallel thinking: the six hats method

The use of the Six Hats method is now growing rapidly around the world. Those who have become familiar with the method look back at argument as crude, primitive and ego-driven.

With the Six Hats method you can still show off. But you now show off by performing better than anyone else under each hat. It is no longer a matter of proving someone else to be wrong. Our ingrained habits of critical disagreement are so often not just a matter of sensible caution, but a mixture of 'power plays' and ego strutting.

There is a proper and necessary place for caution. That place is provided by the 'black hat'. Under this hat everyone sets out to look for risks, dangers, problems, shortfalls, etc. Even those who most like the idea make a genuine effort to identify the faults. Power plays have no place. There is no longer an opportunity to show that some particular person is wrong or that you are smarter than that person.

CRITICISM

What is particularly important about this change is that very able minds are denied the only game they know. So many people have been educated to believe that criticism is the highest form of intelligence. As a result of being denied this traditional game, such thinkers now have to seek out another game at which to excel. That game is laid out with the other hats.

So a person who has always prided himself or herself on being critical now makes an effort to be creative. Once the effort is made, then it is often successful. People who have never wanted to be creative (because it is so much more risky than being critical) find that they can indeed be creative. They become good at it, and they come to like it. Such a person is now making a greater contribution to meetings than before.

Two doctors in a surgery are arguing over the diagnosis of a child with a rash. One doctor insists it is measles because the child's brother has measles. The other doctor argues that there are no Koplik spots and it looks more like a food allergy. Each person brings forward items to support their position and to attack the other position.

Argument is concerned with identifying 'what is'. Argument is for identifying standard situations and then applying standard remedies. Argument was never intended to be constructive. Argument is reactive, not proactive. The sad fact is that Western culture has never developed any idiom of constructive thinking - the thinking concerned with 'what can be'.

There are many thinking situations where identifying something is indeed sufficient. But there are many other situations where there is nothing to identify because something has to be 'constructed' in the first place. That is where parallel thinking is so necessary.

You can judge something that is there - but judgment will not put anything there. Our habits of critical thinking are totally inadequate, and yet that is what education has all been about.

ARGUMENT

Everyone uses the argument mode, not because it is preferred, or has been chosen from among other modes - but simply because it is the only mode we know! That is both astonishing and amazing. In the third millennium (AD) we have to admit that we have not developed any other method of discourse except argument. Someone says 'this is so' and others agree or disagree. If they disagree they show why they disagree.

This mode is excellent, but inadequate. The front nearside wheel of a motor car is excellent, but inadequate. I do not have to 'argue' that argument is wrong, because it is not wrong. I only have to suggest that it is inadequate.

Argument does not get the best out of the available brains because all the brains are 'case-making'. They take one side or another, as in a court case, and then use their thinking, not to explore the subject, but to make the case. This is such very limited thinking.

EGO-PLAYS

The Six Hats method is now very widely used around the world, both in schools and in business. It is used with four-year-olds in school (as in Clayfield College, Brisbane) and with senior executives at some of the world's largest corporations (like Siemens). It is simple, practical and effective. Meeting times are very much shortened. Everyone can make the fullest use of their intelligence and experience. Ego-plays are impossible.

What is important is that it be done properly. I have heard of organisations which believe that one person wears one hat, another person another hat, etc. This is exactly the opposite of what it should be. Parallel thinking means that at any moment everyone is thinking 'in the same direction'. To avoid such nonsense I set up, many years ago, training in the method (see below). There are now certified trainers, both independent and within organisations, who can teach the method effectively (for information fax London 0171 602 1779 or contact my web site, www.edwdebono.com).

Our brains are designed to adapt to a stable world. Our thinking systems are designed to identify standard situations in a stable world and to provide standard responses. This is not good enough in a changing world. This does not allow us to move forward and to make use of the opportunities offered by technology and science.

THE SIX HATS

There are six metaphorical hats, each one a different colour. The thinker wears one hat at a time and only uses the mode of thinking which goes with that particular colour.

  • The white hat is neutral. While wearing this hat, the thinkers simply focus on information. What information is available on the subject, and what is missing?
  • The red hat signifies emotion and intuition - aspects of human thinking which are traditionally excluded from 'rational' discussion. But since they still exist, they often get expressed indirectly. The red hat allows them to be expressed openly and usefully.
  • The black hat puts the thinkers into the role of judge. Wearing this hat, they assess the risks associated with an idea and see how the idea fits with what is already known (our experience, values, objectives, etc.).
  • The yellow hat brings out the positive side of assessing an idea. With this hat on, the thinkers look for the benefits and values in an idea. As with the black hat, the thinkers have to use logic when wearing the yellow hat.
  • The green hat signals deliberate creative effort. Under this hat all the possibilities can be explored, using specific techniques of lateral thinking, like provocation. This is an opportunity for vision.
  • Finally, the blue hat is there for the overview. It is usually worn by the person chairing a meeting but can be used by anyone. The process of thinking is managed with this hat and all the different threads drawn together.

Edward de Bono

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