Black Hats Are People Too

Black Hat ThinkingEdward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats has become a very well-known framework over the years since he first wrote about the concept and the first edition of his book was published way back in 1985.

A way of describing different kinds of thinking, it’s an approach that has been used by teachers, facilitators, managers and others in corporations, businesses, schools and community organisations or efforts. A quick summary in case you’re unfamiliar:

  • The White Hat calls for information known or needed
  • The Red Hat signifies feelings, hunches and intuition
  • The Black Hat is judgment — the devil’s advocate or why something may not work
  • The Yellow Hat symbolizes brightness and optimism
  • The Green Hat focuses on creativity: the possibilities, alternatives and new ideas
  • The Blue Hat is used to manage the thinking process

white hatDe Bono argued – rightly- that all types of thinking are equally valuable. The ‘white hat’ under which we gather facts is as important as the ‘green hat’ of creativity and the ‘blue hat’ of monitoring process etc.  And for any innovation or planning process, it’s important to bring all types of thinking to bear in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

As individuals, if we can cultivate our capacity to engage in all types of thinking, we are doing well.  The reality is, however, that many of us lean towards one type of thinking above others in our day-to-day lives.

Red HatWhat this means in any team or group is that different people will tend to bring different thinking strengths to bear on the situation. For example, some folk will be more inclined to express an emotional response (the ‘red hat’ wearers), others will always seem to see the sunny side and infinite possibilities (‘yellow hatters’) and still others will be very good at checking in about how the whole planning process is progressing and where things are at right now (the ‘blue hats”). 

What this can mean in practice at times is a degree of frustration for those involved. :) Someone who focuses predominantly on factual information – whose preference is for white hat thinking – can become frustrated with another person who customarily is more interested in exploring the emotional impact of a decision and whose preference is for wearing the red hat. Equally, the green hat wearers who are flying with new and creative ideas can feel stymied by the white hat thinkers who will immediately want more facts and data to support the suggestions under discussion.

Black HatBut perhaps the most problematic at times can be the presence of those whose preference is to wear a  black hat.  We’ve actually touched on this kind of thing in three other blog posts: The Sky is Falling, Scratch a Cynic, and We’ll All Be Rooned.  All three are stories of black hat thinking.

What can happen, as we suggested in the first two of those posts, is that a group can become frustrated or even angry with that person in their midst who always seems to go with black hat thinking.

But there’s another way to see it … 

In Appreciative Inquiry we don’t use a black hat perspective as the basis for forward planning – we focus on possibilities rather than problems – but at the same time it’s also very important to honour all voices.  So when someone who has a preference for wearing the black hat comes along, it’s important we allow space for that voice to be heard.

Some Appreciative Inquiry practitioners might argue that, because AI is about seeing possibilities and building on the positive core, there’s no place for black hat thinking in that process.  But from our perspective, not allowing people to express ‘black hat thinking’ at all can become yet another form of oppression. At best, it will probably alienate those whose voices were silenced in the process. And at worst it can delegate all those comments and thoughts to the ‘shadow’ where they can fester, grow and undermine everything we are trying to achieve. 

Rather than ignoring or silencing what we might perceive simply as negativity, let’s value the contribution as a practical, cautionary element to be explored. And let’s use the other thinking hats to help us reframe potential problems into possibilities as we move towards the future we want.

After all, black hats are people too …  :)

Footnote: If you’d like to learn more or arrange for some training in the use of De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, contact Frank Connolly at Think Quick  or Laurel Sutton at Cre Ativ Cognicion for details.

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