A Quick and Creative Way to Solve Problems at Work

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Most of us have seen this image before. Some swear it’s a duck, while others swear it is a rabbit. Both are correct! But this exercise gives us a clear example of how individuals naturally see the world differently. And in the work environment, this different way of seeing things, if leveraged, presents a huge advantage.

Seeing the world, and situations, in only one way can interfere with our ability to problem solve. We look at situations in a way that comes naturally, and are blind to other perspectives that may increase our ability to solve problems or innovate. Each of us benefits greatly from the perspectives of others at the workplace.

Yet it doesn’t always feel that way. Often times sharing an idea in a meeting is like morphing into a dartboard. You share your idea, and then everyone throws darts at it. You may even try to get the buy-in from coworkers in advance of the meeting to mitigate getting shot down, frustrated—even embarrassed—so quickly.

What if I told you there was an easy and fun way to prevent this kind of meeting? What if you were able to use a simple methodology that instigates participation and positive outcomes to problem solving?

Enter the “Six Thinking Hats,” developed by Edward de Bono. As Freddi Donner explains, the Six Thinking Hats is “a tool for group discussion and individual thinking that involves six colored hats. “Six Thinking Hats”, and the associated idea parallel thinking, provide a means for groups to execute a thinking process in a detailed and cohesive way, which allows them to think together more effectively.”

What Are The Six Thinking Hats?

Here’s a great video explaining what the Six Hats are, and how the method works.

De Bono writes, “Each thinking role is identified with a colored symbolic ‘thinking hat.’ By mentally wearing and switching ‘hats,’ you can easily focus or redirect thoughts, the conversation, or the meeting.”

To understand each hat and the associated roles, take a look at the table below.

Solve Problems at Work

As a basic example, if you were “wearing” the green hat, you would approach an issue or conversation as creatively as possible. You’d look for possibilities, alternatives, and new ideas.

Yet if you were “wearing” the black hat, you’d look at the same issue or conversation with a keen eye for danger. You’d attempt to ferret-out anything that could go wrong.

Now, you must be prepared to be a little uncomfortable. It’s common to feel uneasy approaching an issue in a way you’re not used to. For example, if you’re someone who informs your own decisions based solely on facts, you may feel awkward or resistant to approaching an issue by expressing your fears, likes, dislikes, loves or hates. After all, you’re a facts person, not an emotions person. But forcing yourself to think from that perspective might surprise you with innovative ideas.

A Basic Example of Using the Six Thinking Hats

Let’s take a look at basic example and run through each of the six hats in action. Let’s say you are the leader at a software development company, which has been steadily growing. While you still feel like a startup, the fact is, you’ve outgrown your office. Employees are sharing desks, the space is crowded and cluttered, and two of the three meeting rooms have had to be converted into offices. This leads to unnecessary tension in the office, and people are starting to complain. You haven’t made the move yet because you know it will significantly increase operational costs.

Let’s approach this problem using the six thinking hats as a guide:

Solve Problems at Work

White Hat: What are the facts about this problem?

The basic facts are there are 50 employees (and growing) in an office space that comfortably accommodates 30.

Solve Problems at Work

Yellow Hat: What is good about having this problem?

It’s great to be growing! We’ve added amazing talent to the team and we will now be able to accomplish even more as a company. We can expand our current offerings and add new products to grow the business even more.

Solve Problems at Work

Black Hat: What is the worst that could happen if we don’t fix this problem?

If we stay in this office, the worst that can happen is expensive attrition. We will lose the great talent that it took us months to find. That will lead to low employee engagement, which leads to poor productivity and even more attrition. We won’t be able to move forward as a business without our talent.

Solve Problems at Work

Red Hat: What do I feel about this problem?

I feel conflicted. On one hand, my employees and their needs are the most important thing to me, so seeing them crammed in together makes me feel like I’m disappointing them. On the other hand, I’m hesitant to increase expenses in what feels like a pivotal time in the business. That makes me very nervous.

Solve Problems at Work

Green Hat: What are some creative ways to address this situation?

One idea is to have some of our team work from home to free up space in the office. Another possibility would be moving into a shared office space with another startup. This would cut the costs of a larger office space. Also, we could leave this area of town and move to the new burgeoning warehouse district, where rent is cheaper.

Solve Problems at Work

Blue Hat: How do you know you are following the six hats method?

I’ve written all of these questions down and written my answers under the designated color for each hat. I can share these notes with my VP and get her feedback.

In the end, this leader decided to create a small task force to investigate the new warehouse district, and possible shared office spaces with the other startups around town. They have a three-week discovery period, after which the team will meet with the heads of each department to vote on the best course of action. They will use the six hats again!

As you can see, this exercise enabled the head of our hypothetical software development company to think through the situation from several perspectives. And by forcing the consideration of different perspectives she may not naturally be drawn to, she achieved “parallel thinking,” which is a more dynamic way to work through a problem.

Let’s move beyond the individual and discuss how to incorporate the Six Thinking Hats method into our workplace. Here is a step-by-step guide.

A Step-By-Step Guide to Incorporating the Six Thinking Hats at Work

  1. To prepare, choose a work challenge and form a small team of 4 or 5 people.
  2. Make sure that your attendees are aware that you will be using this method and that your goal is to fully investigate the situation at hand and develop an execution plan based on the meeting. Therefore, all attendees who can contribute to the facts should plan to bring them to the meeting.
  3. Before the meeting, create an agenda, including a video link from the first lesson in this course, and ask your team to watch this video before the meeting. Ask your participants to be prepared to use this methodology when coming to the meeting.
  4. In the meeting, limit your time with each hat color to five minutes or less. If you set your time limit to 30 minutes, you can get through all the thinking quickly and efficiently. You will be the blue hat, and will participate in each of the colored hat perspectives.
    Make sure it is a safe environment and that no one is “wrong” for adding to the content of the meeting. Even if you do not agree, say, “That’s interesting” or “Let’s note that point of view”.
  1. Be sure to ask one of the participants to record all the points of view.
  2. As a group, discuss the steps in this order (remember to limit time with each step to five minutes or less):
    White Hat: The facts. What do you already know?
    Note: Facts often get disguised as opinions. If someone states a “fact” that appears to be an opinion, ask the participant (without judgment): “What specific behaviors cause you to think that?” Or “How do you know that?” Listen for the fine line between opinions and fact.
    Red Hat: What is your gut feeling about the situation? How do you feel about the situation? (Happy, angry, etc.; all emotions are to be recorded.)
    Black Hat: What do we need to look out for?
    Yellow Hat: What are the reasons to say yes? What are the benefits and upsides of this situation?
    Green Hat: What are other ideas that can be a part of this thinking?
    Blue Hat: Make sure all the participants are maintaining the parallel thinking.

These questions should really get the team thinking and spur an active discussion. For fun, if you can access paper (or hats) in the six colors, bring them to the meeting to reinforce the colored thinking. Bandanas would work as well.

If you’ve never tried the Six Thinking Hats method, I’m excited for you to do so. As De Bono says, The Six Thinking Hats is “A powerful tool set, which once learned can be applied immediately!” I’d love to hear about your experiences with this method. Please leave a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter. Also—let me know if you have any questions!

Special thanks to Freddi Donner and her work on the Six Hats—learn more about her here.

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