I recently ran a two half-day’s workshop for the extended leadership team of the national chemical company. We dealt with strategic thinking and looked at how their two-year old strategic plan might need adapting due to the transformation plans of our entire group of companies. More than half of the GDP of the country.

Rather than just look at updating the strategy, I also did some teaching about tools which can be useful in strategic thinking. We were looking at strategic thinking not just to help the strategy work, but because an in depth assessment earlier this year suggested it was a potential development area for the team as a whole.

And so we briefly looked at a number of tools used to aid strategic thinking. And then tried them out and applied them to parts of the strategy. Although many of the techniques have been around for years, some were less well known by a number of participants than others.

Almost everyone had heard of SWOT, but PESTLE was less well known (despite PEST at least being in the current chemicals strategy), as was another golden oldie, de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. I was surprised how few people had heard of this – less than a quarter – and as usual as it was introduced, there were some divergent views as to how helpful it might be.

Edward de Bono is the father of the concept of Lateral Thinking. He is still regarded as one of the major figures in the field of creative thinking, innovation and the possibility of teaching thinking as a skill.  In 1985 he published a landmark book on the Six Thinking Hats technique.

The six hats, with six different colours, represent six different thinking styles, all of which are useful in strategic thinking.

The White Hat is for Information: What are the facts? What information do I need? What do I know?

The Red Hat is for Feelings: How do I feel about this? What do I love about the idea? What don’t I like? What are my hunches, gut-feeling, intuition?

The Yellow Hat is for Benefits or Positives: What are the good positive points? Why is this a good thing? Why can it be done? What are the value and benefits?

The Black Hat is Judgement: the opposite of the yellow hat. What is wrong with this? Why won’t it work? The Devil’s advocate if you like. The difficulties and dangers. Where might things go wrong?

The Green Hat is Creativity: What new ideas are possible? What are the creative alternatives? What innovative possibilities could there be?

And finally the Blue Hat is Thinking about Thinking: It manages the thinking process. Where are we now? What conclusions or summaries can be made in moving forward. The hat that sums up everything that has happened already

As we had identified large number of factors influencing strategic thinking, including the requirement  for multiple thinking perspectives, an open mind, the necessity to challenge conventional thinking, processes & strategy, and the need to consider both intuition and hard fact – both head and heart – the Six Hats seemed an appropriate tool to help.

Basically the idea is to metaphorically ‘wear’ each hat in turn (although I remember many years ago seeing a group work with real coloured hats!) In this way we mindfully separate our thinking into different perspectives, ensuring all are properly and consciously covered.

And by mentally wearing and switching hats, the team can focus or redirect thoughts, the discussions or the brainstorming.

However there always seem to be a couple of people who do not like the process. As some of these approaches will not be people’s preferred way of thinking or tackling a problem, some people may feel uncomfortable and even think it unnatural and counterproductive to use the technique, when they first hear of it.

Here we had a good discussion even before trying it out, with a couple of participants who thought that there were no feelings involved in creating strategy. It is an academic exercise. Based on facts. So naturally the most outspoken had to wear the red hat for the exercise to expand his strategic thinking in the exercise.

And hats off to him, because he also reported back the results of his break-out group’s discussion and concluded that the technique could actually be useful. Chapeau!

By the way, I have seen that the order in which you apply the hats can also determine how successful their use is. My own preferred order is often: blue (to agree what you need to discuss), white (facts), red (feelings about facts, often worried), yellow (optimism), black (pessimism), green (creativity), red again (to see what everyone feels like now, often more positive than before) and blue again (summarizing the discussion).

So if you need to bring a little colour into your own, your team or organisation’s thinking, remember the Six Hats and de Bono. Simple, easy to use and an effective parallel thinking process.


  1. Linda

    All the women on your blog are breathtakingly beautiful. I adore the structure of this little red hat. I love hats too but I have to be careful that they don’t swallow my tiny head! Thank you for sharing all these wonderful, interesting people. I’m 49, and I don’t know if that makes me “advanced” or not, but here in Vancouver, in the land of yoga pants and hiking gear, it doesn’t seem to take much! I always check your site for inspiration.

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