Getting to a good decision on big issues is challenging.  Getting through the discussions leading up to a decision however, often resembles something on the difficulty of slogging through the Amazonian jungles in search of a mythical lost city made of gold. If you survive the process, you are bound to come out a very different person.

It doesn’t have to be so hard.

Some background: last winter, I authored a multi-part series on the challenges and pitfalls individuals and groups encounter on their way to making more effective decisions (see: The Management Excellence Toolkit for Effective Decision-Making.)  And while many of the suggestions for strengthening DM effectiveness involved improving discussion elements, I didn’t tackle the important and separate topic of managing overall discussion quality as a core part of the process.

It’s time to introduce a new tool that will help us separate facts from emotions from opinions, in pursuit of designing our discussions and our way forward, instead of battling our way forward as is commonly the case.

A Powerful Discussion Management Tool: Six Thinking Hats by Edward De Bono

De Bono developed Six Thinking Hats as a tool to take the complexity out of discussions and to engage the full power of groups by ensuring their common focus on a particular element of a discussion. He offers that “arguing our way forward” has its roots in the foundations of western thinking, yet often, what is required to simplify complexity and reduce overall discussion duration, is a method for designing our way forward.

The Six Thinking Hats technique uses colored hats where each one represents a distinct topic theme, including: emotions, negatives/risks, positives, creative ideas, process issues and facts (known and needed).

The facilitator manages the discussion flow by choosing a colored hat and ensuring that everyone turns their attention exclusively to contributing to the topic defined by the hat.  A scribe takes notes for all to see and someone else might serve as a judge, calling out “hat violations” as they occur.

While there is no substitute for a great facilitator, Six Thinking Hats is something that you can put to work with your team after few hours of reading time and some live-fire practice. I include a practice scenario below that will help you and your team uncover the power of this guided discussion process.  Of course, spend some time reading De Bono’s book before trying it on for size.

Practice Vignette-Let’s Make it Personal:

When introducing groups to the technique for the first time, I provide a practice round on a non-business topic.  A favorite practice scenario involves learning from your significant other that he/she has suddenly (out of the blue) decided to quit work tomorrow and pursue opening the Bistro you two have always dreamed about.  The only fact that I supply involves the existence of your combined savings, which might tide you over for one year, assuming you don’t use it to start the Bistro. Just about everyone can imagine their own reaction to being on the receiving end of this type of pronouncement from a significant other, and it doesn’t take long to get the discussion started.

In This Case, Emotions Followed by Risks and Negatives Before Turning Sunny:

When facilitating the discussion around any case, it’s important for the discussion leader to apply the hats in an order that works for the situation.  The order will vary from case to case.  In this situation, the shock and risk of the announcement are likely to breed early, strong emotional reactions. Venting may be required for moving forward.  As such,  I instruct the group to put on their Red Hats and let the emotions fly.

After some creative expressions of shock, outrage and anger, it’s important to shift away from emotions and start building a productive conversation. In this case, I’m interested in the group continuing their venting, albeit, in a slightly more constructive manner than the Red Hat provided. I ask the group to put on their Black Hats and identify everything that might go wrong with suddenly quitting a job and opening a restaurant.  We run a real-time risk brainstorming session.

As the list generation on negatives runs out of steam, I often will guide people to the positive side of the street.  At this time, the Yellow Hats go on and the focus is on  generating all of the sunny ideas on why this might just be OK.  We’re looking for “what can go right” with the idea, and talk of dreams fulfilled, financial independence, freedom from a corporate job and so forth begin to emerge.

Process Notes:

It’s interesting to work with a group after the emotions have been vented and the negatives listed, on viewing the situation positively.  It sometimes takes a bit of facilitation effort to move off of Red and Black Hat thinking, but once the positives start flying, the stage is now set for the next phases.

Another important facilitation note. The group can request to move back towards a particular hat at any point in time. The key is that the entire group must go there…not just one person.  This technique does not work if everyone has on a different color hat.  The goal is parallel thinking…focusing everyone on the same destination at the same time. A good facilitator manages both the group focus and return trips to the various hats as needed.

We’ve Vented, Listed Risks and Allowed Ourselves to Go Positive. Now, We Need Ideas!

In my practice example, I might invoke the Green Hat (creativity/brainstorming) next and follow-it up with a White Hat to ascertain facts…what we know and importantly, what we need to know.   The brainstorming process (green hat) is not dissimilar to traditional brainstorming endeavors, and as a facilitator, you can encourage building and jumping and you can even introduce other creativity tools.  Remember, the hat doesn’t tell the group how to run the discussion, it simply signals direction.

White Hat discussions must focus on clearly establishing what we know…and importantly, what we need to know. A good discussion on the facts can help minimize data errors and other anchoring, estimating and data-related biases.

Venting Again and then Deciding How to Decide (or at least, Deciding What to Do Next):

After brainstorming on creativity and fact related issues, I typically return to red (emotions) and black (negatives) one more time for some additional venting. Often, there isn’t any.  I then have everyone put on my hat (Blue) and discuss and define the process for moving forward.

While You Might Not Face the Bistro Decision…

My silly little vignette has all of the elements of common workplace dilemmas, including: emotions, risk, unknowns, the potential for success and the need for a reasonable way to work forward. It’s not hard to imagine the Bistro discussion in reality and just about everyone acknowledges the potential for the issue to be a relationship killer.

Your strategic decisions are filled with the same issues…and then some, including politics, silo views, conflicting agendas and different views on the best way forward or even the best direction for the business.

If you are facing some tough discussions and decisions, try enlisting the help of an experienced Six Thinking Hats facilitator and watch and listen as the quality of the discussions improve and the complexity and duration of discussions reduce in scale and scope.

If you simply want to find a way to improve discussion quality on your team or in your home, pick up the book, check out the web resources and then start applying the technique.  Your groups will enjoy the change, you will develop valuable facilitation experience and everyone will benefit by a bit of parallel thinking!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Just like the best woodworking tools in the world won’t make me a skilled cabinetmaker, the Six Thinking Hats approach won’t guarantee decision-making success.  However, with study, practice and regular application, DeBono’s cute little colored hats can help to transform discussion quality over time. Improving discussion quality is step one on the road to making better decisions.