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CHIPS Articles: An Introduction to Six-Hat Critical Thinking: Applying Edward De Bono’s Model to Military Work

An Introduction to Six-Hat Critical Thinking: Applying Edward De Bono’s Model to Military Work
By Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Livingston - July-September 2017
Do you ever find yourself struggling to prepare a brief, uncertain of how to convince a senior officer to reach a decision? Do you ever find yourself in meetings where participants seem to talk in circles? If so, I encourage you to consider the critical thinking approach recommended by Edward De Bono in his book, Six Thinking Hats.

The Navy values quick decision-making. We spend years training to make good decisions quickly in watch-standing environments. We don’t always invest the same sort of training and discipline toward making good decisions off-watch. In the absence of clear answers, sometimes we simply go with our gut reaction, defer to authority, or wait for more information.

We often need to get past the perception that we don’t have time to invest in stepping back from a problem and thinking through it thoroughly. If you find yourself leaning toward this mindset, ask some of these questions:

  • “If I don’t have time to think this through thoroughly, do I have time to invest in rework?”
  • “Can I afford to waste time staring at this problem from only one angle?”
  • “Can our team afford to waste time arguing from entrenched positions?”
  • “Is there anyone at this meeting we can afford to ignore?”

Six-hat thinking provides a disciplined approach to examining a problem or idea from several angles. In a group setting this encourages “parallel thinking,” in which everyone looks at a problem from a similar angle at the same time. De Bono suggests that this approach can be more effective than “adversarial thinking,” which strives to arrive at the truth by debating a position from opposite angles. While adversarial approaches may be useful in some contexts, we need to ask: “Will adversarial thinking help us to arrive at the best decision, or will it favor the approach championed by the most skillful debater?”

Each of the thinking hats represents a different way of thinking about a problem or idea. When mapping out your approach to a problem, these hats could be applied in any order.

Blue Hat: Thinking about thinking

  • Which thinking disciplines do I need to bring to bear on this problem?
  • How much time should I spend thinking about this problem?
  • Taking the time to plan out your approach to thinking can help you avoid getting into ruts.

Red Hat: Emotional Perspective

  • How do I feel about the task at hand, or the decision to be made? What is my gut telling me?
  • If we don’t acknowledge and address the role that our emotions play in our decision making, they tend to resurface later, possibly derailing our effort to use other thought disciplines.

White Hat: Neutral Facts

  • Lay out the information that you have available.
  • Identify any knowledge gaps — “known unknowns.”
  • Identify what would be required (time, resources) to gather missing information.

Green Hat: Creative Thinking

  • Generate new ideas, brainstorm.
  • Defer judgement. Use crazy ideas as a stepping stone to new approaches.

Yellow Hat: Logical Positive

  • What would things look like if this idea works? What benefits could be gained?
  • What conditions are required for this plan to be successful?

Black Hat: Logical Negative

  • What risks are associated with this approach?
  • How could things go wrong? What conditions could lead to failure?

When planning your approach to thinking you may choose to omit some of the hats, depending on the situation. For example, for a simple problem with a straightforward answer you may only need to use white and red. If you’re preparing a risk management slide, you may only need to use blue, white and black. For more difficult problems, you may want to use all of them — especially when you first begin to apply the six-hat thinking approach.

As with any discipline, experience will make you more comfortable as you select the hats to use, the order in which to use them, and the time to assign to each. You’ll also be able to find a balance between sticking to the schedule that you lay out during your blue-hat planning, and giving yourself some flexibility to extend or shorten the time that you dedicate to each hat.

You may get some odd looks if you walk into your next meeting and ask everyone to put on their red hats. If you’re working with people who haven’t been introduced to six-hat thinking, approach the method with subtlety. Instead of “put on your blue hat,” you might simply provide an agenda. If you’re leading or moderating a meeting, you can lay out the ground rules for each phase of the discussion.

Once your team is willing to invest some time in training, it will be useful for everyone to learn the six-hat thinking disciplines together. For more information, you can pick up a copy of Edward De Bono’s book, “Six Thinking Hats.” You can also watch him provide an overview on YouTube.

Six Hats Part 1:
Six Hats Part 2:

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the National Reconnaissance Office, Office of Human Resources, School of Professional Development for their workshop on Six Hat Critical Thinking.

Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Livingston is an Information Professional Officer serving at the SPAWAR Space Field Activity, supporting the National Reconnaissance Office.

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