Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats: Revisiting corporate learning, 1990s-style

Six Thinking Hats from the master of lateral thinking. Image Credit: Nelly Ghazaryan [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia.

Six Thinking HatsSix Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a young staff officer in an artillery regiment in the mid-1990s, I was tasked with learning more about de Bono's Six Thinking Hats in preparation for an officers' retreat. The commanding officer at the time was completing an MBA and he had developed a vision statement and vision motto for the regiment. For many of the officers and men, it was deemed quite unnecessary. 

The deputy principal at Brisbane's Clayfield College was an expert in de Bono's work, and I met with him to learn more. The one thing that stuck with me was his approach to using random words as a 'provocation' (p. 131). His approach was to have a list of sixty random nouns, numbered one to sixty. Whenever he needed to 'po', he would look at the minute hand on the clock, go to the corresponding number on his list, and then use the word as a way to shake things up in his thinking. 

On reading the Penguin version of this book for the first time, I noticed that the deputy principal at Clayfield College gets a mention (p. x), and then I learnt how much I had forgotten about de Bono's process. 

It was enlightening because I have used the Six Thinking Hats in the 'leading creativity' part of my leadership teaching, but with large classes and students in groups being introduced to the method for the first time has rarely proven any more than an introduction. It has often meant that I have inadvertently used the hats incorrectly, as people would end up using the same hat for the session (p. 7). 

Based on my re-reading of de Bono, I will try again in tutorial classes, which tend to be smaller, and I will act as the blue hat and focus on an issue of common concern. This problem is quite obvious. As former Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Stephen Parker once said:
A university is a collection of disciplines brought together by a common concern over car parking.
I will use car parking as it is an issue that most students struggle with every time they attend class. 

It was interesting to revisit 'parallel thinking', and to ensure the hats are used in this way. In effect, everyone must be looking in the same direction, something that falls apart when the hats are used by separate individuals rather than as a group (p. 4). 

I continue to find de Bono's critique of the 'Greek Gang of Three' fascinating (p. 1). 

In my leadership classes, we discuss the opposing theories of Fred Fiedler versus Hersey and Blanchard. Fiedler suggests our leadership style is either task or relationship focused and it is difficult or impossible to change, whereas the Hersey-Blanchard model suggests we can and should change our style to suit different situations. While not referring to leadership styles per se, de Bono suggests that (p. 140):
I don't think it is possible to change personality... [however] the tragedy mask and the comedy mask are separate. The actor himself does not change.
Finally, the concept of the creative pause is useful. One should stop, pause, and put on the green hat just because... for no reason, even if everything is on track, just stop, pause, and 'po'. 

I have been using what I call the Stoic 'deliberate pause' when making decisions to assess externalities. But I will now try to deliberately pause from time to time to also consider the possibilities. I think I can do this rather well, although I do have an efficiency preference for using the 'standard situation box' (p. 3) to deal with administrative matters and then only think creatively about the things that fall outside the box. But using the creative pause is something I would like to be more conscious of until it becomes a habit. 

There is something to be said about de Bono's method, and I believe if used properly, it can wield innovative results. At the same time, I think the number of management fads has turned most people off any form of corporate game, and we have all experienced vision statements that say one thing while the organisation does the exact opposite to its stakeholders. 

De Bono's method, however, does not need to be seen as a fad if the underlying philosophy and design of the systematised thinking process is considered. The concept of design thinking in all aspects of life is on the rise at the moment, so I would recommend revisiting the Six Thinking Hats as a way to bring design thinking to bear. But we shall see.

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