Problem Solving and Six Thinking Hats

A man paints the left side of his car black and the right side white. He then proceeds to drive down main street. People on one side of the street are asked what color the car is. “Black,” they say. People on the other side of the street are asked the same question, and the response is “White.” Both sides argue adamantly for their point of view. Who is right?

Both are, based on the perspective of the car as they saw it.

This story illustrates a principle that is at the basis of western thinking — one that can have dramatic consequences in business. The principle is that, in problem solving, both sides can both be right in arguing a point. The ability to move past this reality in meetings is at the basis for higher levels of productivity in business thinking today.

The rest of this blog will present a solution to what is often a stalemate environment in many businesses, evidenced by long, tedious meetings where groups are not able to agree on a strategy, an objective, a sales goal. This type of stalemate can cost a company thousands, if not millions, of dollars by stifling the ability to move ahead in a progressive way during meetings or planning sessions.


Western thinking is built around an approach to problem solving based on the influence of the Greek “Gang of Three” — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This approach is highly dependent on arguing and debating a point of view based on facts, beliefs and point of view perspectives.

The problem? This approach often gets bogged down in only defining “what is,” through analysis, judgement and argument, as opposed to defining “what could be.”  As an example, 80% of Socrates’ dialogues led to no outcome at all … only a definition of the problem. He rarely offered a solution beyond the statement of the problem.

In his international best seller, “Six Thinking Hats,” Edward de Bono proposes an alternative way to problem solving that leaps over the pitfalls of Western thinking. His approach can be best described as “parallel thinking.” In this approach, a group focuses together in designated increments on six dimensions of thinking designed to progressively move towards a solution.

The Six Thinking Hats method is intended to move a group away from simply defining and arguing a point of view to collaborating on essential elements of the problem to design a way forward to a progressive answer.

Each of the hats represents a groupthink perspective on the problem. Each hat is “put on” in a meeting, and for that time period, that hat’s boundaries limit the input of each individual in that group to suggestions within those boundary lines.

A general gauge is that each hat should be in play for one minute per group member. For example, with five people, the White Hat should rule for five minutes, the Red Hat for five minutes, etc.

White Hat

The White Hat is concerned with facts and figures. In the White Hat mode, each member of the group focuses on known facts (not supposed or perceived) about the problem. “What percentage of men under thirty buy products in this category?” “What is the total sales volume of products in this category in the last year?” In White Hat mode, the brainstorming is focused solely on capturing facts and figures around the problem at hand.

Red Hat

The Red Hat is concerned with feelings and emotions around the problem at hand. And these feelings don’t need to be justified or explained — just captured. “I am skeptical about this design.” “I feel we are heading in the wrong direction towards our sales goals if we take this project on.” “I love it!” “I hate it!” In Red Hat mode,  each member of the group is free to express their feelings — without criticism, justification or explanation. The goal is to just capture the emotions around the issue.

Black Hat

The Black Hat is the most used, and most familiar, of the hats, and is the one closest aligned to western thinking. The black hat is the hat of caution. It is for being careful and cautious. The black hat is the hat of survival. The black hat is the basis of critical thinking, and is helpful in determining if a business direction has warning signs. “I don’t like the idea of spending half a million dollars on social media for this launch.” “The last time we entered this market it was a disaster.” The black hat helps ensure past mistakes won’t be repeated and new directions be considered cautiously.

Yellow Hat

When you think of the yellow hat, think sunshine. Think optimism. Think of what could be. The goal with the yellow hat on is to find as many ways as possible to make an idea work — no limits, no boundaries. It is the opposite of the black hat, which is all about being cautious. The yellow hat is focused on possibilities and looking into the future. The yellow hat encourages thinking outside the box.

Green Hat

The Green Hat is the energy hat. It is concerned with growth, such as generating new, alternative ideas. With the green hat on, you lay out new approaches to doing things, alternative ways of thinking about a process. The green hat is about being creative, and recognizes the fact that everyone has creative ideas, whether they are labeled as “creatives” or not. With the green hat in play, anyone’s ideas are considered relevant and contributive, whether it’s someone in finance or a seasoned art director.

Blue Hat

The blue hat is the control hat. It is there for the management of thinking, for process control. Using the blue hat at the the beginning of a thinking session defines the situation. With the blue hat on, the thinking strategy is set. In this mode, anyone can suggest procedures or control measures for the group session: “We do not have much time to focus on this problem, so would someone like to suggest a blue hat structure for our session?” Switching to the blue hat during a session helps ensure the focus of the problem solving session will stay on track, with maximum input and results.


There are two primary purposes to the Six Thinking Hats concept. The first is to simplify the process of thinking about a problem by allowing a group or individual to focus on one component of the solution at a time (this is why the process is labeled “parallel thinking.”) The second is to allow a transition in the process of thinking about a problem by putting boundaries and process around how the group will think about the issue.

By focusing on the multi-dimensional process of thinking about many components of a problem or issue, the most effective solution can be arrived at, generally in a much more efficient manner than traditional argumentative Western thinking.

Posted in