Creativity Tools: Part 2

By Daryl Kulak

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2006.

In my last column, I gave you five tools to help your creativity. There is one more special tool that can help you refine your thinking process by yourself, or, even better, in a group. It’s called six hat thinking.

Six Thinking Hats

While maybe oddly named, six hat thinking was created by Edward de Bono, a philosopher and teacher of thinking skills who feels we need to think about how we think. Have you ever considered that despite the degree to which thinking is intrinsic in our lives, we aren’t taught how to think in school?

Our thought processes can sometimes get muddled, especially when the subject at hand is an emotional one. This technique can really help with highly-charged issues. Let’s look at what it means to think in hats.

You’ve probably heard someone say, “If I put on my instructor’s hat ...” There is an almost tangible action of putting on a metaphorical hat. It may sound a little strange, but the fact is that the six thinking hats process is successfully used in many large corporations, including IBM, Shell, Unilever, United Technologies, and many others. Helping people in these large organizations become better, more creative thinkers is what de Bono does best.

The six hat thinking exercise can help your thinking process considerably, especially when you’re trying to generate ideas. But which hats are most helpful? Here they are, one by one.

White Hat—Just the Facts

The first hat is the white hat, which has nothing to do with cowboy movies. The white hat represents looking at the facts of the matter. This is often a good way to start thinking about a topic.
It is important to look at the facts before coming to a conclusion. This sounds obvious, but often we do just the opposite. Emotionally, we decide on a conclusion, then we look for facts to support it. This is what happens on political talk shows, where they argue with one another for sport. And it’s what happens when we jump to conclusions in our own lives.

Let’s try the white hat theory on a holistic business problem.

Challenge: I need a strategy to retain clients.

White Hat:

• I’m getting an average of twelve appointments a week.
• My goal is to have thirty appointments a week.
• I get paid $80 per appointment, per hour.
• About 85 percent of my clients come once and don’t return.
• My goal is to have at least 60 percent of my first-time clients return.

Notice that we just stick to the facts. White hat is not about how you feel about these facts and figures—that comes later.
You might find this difficult to do, but be disciplined. Stick to the facts. Keep your white hat on until you have a good list of facts related to your thinking situation.

Red Hat—Let ’er Fly

Now is the time for emotions. The red hat is the hat to wear to express how you feel about the situation. Let it fly! Look through those facts and reflect on them. Write down how you feel.
Why keep these emotions separate from the facts? Well, when your emotions take over, you can miss some facts that don’t fit the particular emotion you’re caught up in at the time.

And often we chide ourselves for getting emotional when we should be factual. But with six hats, we can see that there is a time for every type of thinking—factual, emotional, whatever.

The red hat phase is also the time for an important type of thinking, if you can even call it that. Red hat is when you check out your intuition. What is it saying? Red hat is the perfect time to ask that still, small voice what you should do.

Give it a try. Put on your red hat and let’s go through a thinking situation.

Challenge: Shall I join a spa or practice on my own?

Red Hat:

• I don’t like being under someone’s thumb.
• I’d feel safer if someone else was responsible for bringing in new clients.
• I think I might make new friends with other therapists who work at the spa.
• My intuition tells me I should give this spa a try.

Often, we’re told to think without employing our emotions, but that strategy rarely works. Our emotions are our friends in making decisions. Our emotions are often the way our inner intuition is expressed.

Yellow Hat—The Sun is Shining

Has anyone ever told you to think positively? With your yellow hat on, it’s time to do just that.

We need to take a sunny look at the situation. There’s a time and place for positive thinking. We don’t have to use this hat all the time, but we can use it as part of our six-hat process.

Challenge: I’m getting fired from my day job.

Yellow Hat:

• This is the universe talking to me.
• This gives me a shining opportunity to work full time in the holistic realm.
• I’m now free to pursue my greatest ambitions.
• No golden handcuffs!
• Let’s see what I’m made of. I love a challenge.

Green Hat—Be Creative

There is a time and place for creative thinking. Creativity is a skill, believes de Bono, not just a talent you have from birth. You can use the creative thinking tools I mentioned in the last column or just try to think about creative ideas—brainstorm.

It is helpful to have a special time in your thought process to be creative, rather than trying to be creative all the time.

Challenge: How shall I advertise my business?

Green Hat:

• I could advertise in the local newspaper, in a holistic monthly magazine, on the radio, in another practitioner’s newsletter, on television, or distribute flyers in my neighborhood.

Black Hat—What’s Wrong With It

Has anyone ever told you that you need to be negative more often? Ha, didn’t think so. And yet, it’s necessary.

The trick with the black hat viewpoint is to use it selectively. It’s best to use the black hat only after you’ve worn the yellow and green hats. Studies of our cognitive tendencies show it’s much easier to move from positive to negative than the other way around. So start with the positive.

Let’s try it with an example.

Challenge: I’ve just had an investor agree to put money into my business.

Black Hat:

• I need to be careful about how much control this investor will want over my business.
• I wonder what could go wrong.
• We should probably have something in place in case we want to break this agreement.

Blue Hat—Thinking About Thinking

There’s one hat left. We can don the blue hat when we need to think about the thinking process.

This hat allows us to step back and observe how we might change the way we’re thinking about the problem—change our thinking tactics, move things around a little, put more emphasis on some ideas, and rethink others.

Challenge: Deciding whether to bring another practitioner into the clinic.

Blue Hat:

Well, putting on my blue hat for a second, I’d like to discuss where we’re at. We’ve used our yellow hats to think about what this practitioner could bring us, and we’ve discussed black hat issues like whether or not she will fit in with our culture. But we haven’t really delved into green hat yet, thinking about innovative ways to include her in our social activities and sharing marketing ideas with her. Do you want to do green hat next?

Group Hats

I hope you’ve seen how you can use six hat thinking to break apart a problem, put your emotions aside (but not ignore them), and produce creative, balanced ideas. But six hats works even better in a group. Essentially, the whole group can decide to change hats when things start to get confusing or unproductive.

Imagine saying, “Let’s try the yellow hat for a while,” when a meeting has turned into a whining session. It makes everyone try to think of positive ways to look at the situation. It is only a metaphor, to be sure, but a powerful one.

And, by separating the positive from the negative, you can avoid the situation where one person is defending an idea and another is attacking it. Rather, everyone puts on the yellow hat and thinks of the positive aspects of the idea, then later, everyone tries on the black hat for the negatives. It can make all the difference in the world for productive discussions.

Here’s a conversation where six hats made a difference:
“My idea is that we try delivering flyers to the houses around the neighborhood. What do you think?”
“That’s a dumb idea. Do you realize how many hours that will take? We have better things to do.”
“Maybe this idea has merit. Let’s put on the yellow hats for a second.”
“Okay, I guess. I’m not crazy about this idea, but with my yellow hat on I can say that the people in this neighborhood are more likely to become customers because they live so close.”
“Right. And printing the flyers is pretty cheap, especially if we use our own photocopier.”
“That’s true. We could use colored paper to make them stand out.”
“Good point. It sounds like we’re getting into some ideas to add to this thought, so let’s switch to the green hats.”
“We could each take a street, work in pairs maybe.”
“We’d be getting good exercise!”
“Yeah, and maybe keep in contact with our cell phones.”
“Good idea. My uncle owns a graphic design firm. Maybe they would help us with the design for cheap or free.”
“That would be great. Let’s switch to the white hat now.”
“Okay, most people don’t respond to flyers placed on their doorsteps. That’s a fact. I think it’s like 1 percent or something.”
“That’s true. It’s also a fact that we have $500 in our yearly budget for advertising for the clinic.”
“And $200 of that is for our ad in the holistic magazine. So that leaves $300 for other things, like this flyer.”
“Right. I read that untargeted marketing is a poor way to spend money on getting new clients.”
“True. Let’s switch to the black hat for a moment.”

Can you see how this works? The group members truly feel like they’re a team of thinkers, not point-counterpoint debaters. Six hat thinking is a less stressful way to test new ideas than debate. It’s friendlier and more effective.

Try the six thinking hats on for size, by yourself, or in your work environment. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but soon you’ll find that the hats “fit” quite nicely.

Daryl Kulak is the host of the weekly podcast “Holistic Health Nation,” available for download at