Six Thinking Hats and Beyond: Recipes for Good Decisions

Sharena Rice, PhD
8 min readMar 18, 2020

Systematic approaches to make your best choice.

Updated 03.03.2021

So many decisions, so little time

Even if people are dealt the same cards, this does not mean they will play them in the same way. While cannot control outcomes, we can control the efforts we apply and the strategies we use. The trajectories of our lives strongly depends on the decisions we make. We can choose to dwell on the negative events of our lives or to tell ourselves that we are bigger than our problems. Many decisions do not have much importance because whichever choice is made does not have a strong effect on the outcome. For example, it does not matter much whether I choose to eat quinoa or oatmeal for breakfast. But there are larger decisions that we need to make in our lives: career decisions, decisions about who to spend our lives with, decisions about large purchases. The scientific method has a series of steps that can lead to conclusions. Is there an analogous decision-making method?

Enter Dr. Edward de Bono, the person who coined the phrase “lateral thinking” and has created different thinking strategies. He came up with a method called “Six Thinking Hats”. This is much more comprehensive than a pros and cons list because it addresses SIX different dimensions of the situation at hand to help the decision-maker come to a well-considered conclusion. We all have to wear different hats in our everyday lives! The trick to using the six thinking hats is to only wear one of the hats at a time and to go through all six of them one by one in succession. Thus, you are not just putting on your thinking cap — you are putting on hat after hat after hat, until you have worked with every hat. As you work through the six thinking hats, write your thoughts for each hat to keep your ideas organized.

The first hat is the red hat, which is all about the emotions and feelings surrounding a decision. While wearing this hat, ask yourself about your feelings about the different decision options, as well as how other people who are affected by the decision may feel. Use empathy and imagination for the emotions that may come with revealing your decision and the possible consequences. After thinking through the red hat, take it off and wear the white hat!

The second hat is the white hat, which is just about the facts and figures regarding the decision. This includes information, such as statistics, how long one decision versus another will cost, how much time it will take, and other things that simply are. For example, lemons are yellow. Penguins cannot fly, but they can swim. There are fifty states in the US. With the white hat, forget about judgments, just focus on the facts.

The third thinking hat is the yellow hat. This is the point where you think about all the positive things associated with the different decision options. What can possibly go right? What are the probable good outcomes from each course of action? Could you leverage one opportunity to find your next?

The fourth thinking hat is the green hat: the hat of alternatives. It is green like a place fertile with vegetation. Think of other possible options. Is there something you are not considering? What if you could negotiate for more options to arise? Is it possible to defer the decision to another time?

The fifth thinking hat is the black hat: the devil’s advocate hat. This is an important hat, very careful and cautious. This is where you ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” You may find that sometimes, the worst that can happen is still a good or a neutral outcome, or a sense of regret for letting an opportunity pass by. Other times, you may find that a risk far outweighs the potential rewards. While wearing this hat, also ask yourself whether there may be unintended consequences. Considering unintended consequences allows you to be two steps ahead and to mitigate the risks down the road.

The sixth thinking hat is the blue hat. Like a perspective from the sky, it is over all of the other hats. At this point, review what you wrote when wearing all of the other hats from a bird’s eye view and see if your decision becomes more clear. Looking at the hats in combination is different from going through each of them as single components. Combinatorial effects may be larger or smaller than the sum of their parts.

I came up with a seventh thinking hat to supplement de Bono’s six thinking hats for decision strategies: the grey hat. It is grey like the fog, and being in a fog reminds you that you can only see so far. It is not possible to know ALL of the information about anything. Improbable events prevent people from making predictions with complete certainty. Still, it is helpful to gain more relevant information for your decision if you can. When wearing the grey hat, you acknowledge your situation of limited information and ask yourself, “What other information can help me make this decision? How much of this information can I attain in a timely manner?” Identifying and pursuing key sources of data or evidence can help you make an informed decision.

One example is from when my friend, Tom (not his real name), was deciding whether to major in theater arts or communications. Although he enjoyed his theater arts classes, he had never taken a communications course before. Tom was already a college sophomore and needed to decide on his coursework for the semester within a matter of days. After walking through the six hats, Tom was still uncertain. What to do in this time crunch when he only had a few more days before the add/drop deadline? I suggested that he contact our university’s communications department chair, ask to see some course syllabi, see for himself if the content of these courses were interesting and useful to him, then to go through the other hats again. Tom soon found himself thriving as a communications major and happy with the communications department chair as his faculty advisor.

Could the approach to gathering information gone better? Another method my friend could have used was to also contact the theater arts department chair to see what the course syllabi may look like in theater arts so that he could compare the skills he may learn side-by side. Confirmation bias, where people cherry-pick for evidence that they want to hear and ignore the evidence that they do not want to hear, is a major pitfall of information gathering. Fortunately, years after graduating with his communications degree, my friend is glad he chose communications over theater arts.

Do different hats have different weights? Yes, the importance of the ideas each hat highlights is up to the person who thought of them. Sometimes, the white hat of facts and figures impose a limit which the other hats cannot override. Sometimes, contrasting the yellow hat of positivity with the devil’s advocate black hat demonstrates an outsized upside with little potential loss, or the green hat shows ways of de-risking a certain option in the decision. The different hats have different weights depending on the situation. Down the road, whether you are having a great day at the time, a bad day at the time, or are very focused on a particular aspect, working through all of these thinking hats will allow you to know that you systematically made the best decision you could with the information that you could acquire in a reasonable amount of time.

Six Thinking Hats — or Seven Thinking Hats — is a useful method for deciding what to do, but what about a method for deciding WHEN to do WHAT? The former president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was able to prioritize his tasks by making and using the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a graph divided into four quadrants. The X-axis spans from urgent on the left to not urgent on the right. The Y-axis spans from not important on the bottom to important on the top. There you have the four quadrants. Listed from the top left to the bottom right, they are: Quadrant 1) important and urgent; Quadrant 2) important and not urgent; Quadrant 3) not important and not urgent; and Quadrant 4) urgent and not important.

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Quadrant 1, which is the schedule quadrant, is important, but not urgent. These tasks need to be done down the road, and they may move into the stress quadrant as time marches on. By scheduling these tasks, you can make plans for them to be done while focusing on your more urgent tasks first.

Quadrant 2, also known as the stress quadrant, is urgent and important. The tasks in this quadrant would ideally be done as soon as possible, with the highest priority on the task with the highest level of urgency and importance.

Quadrant 3 is the eliminate quadrant. If it is neither urgent nor important, then it is not a priority. The tasks in this quadrant may solve themselves or they may serve as distractions from more pressing matters.

Quadrant 4, which is the delegate quadrant, is urgent, but not important. Since the tasks in this quadrant are unimportant to you, others may be more enthusiastic about handling the tasks you have placed here and it may be better for you to apply yourself to taking care of the tasks in your stress quadrant before trying to do the things in your delegate quadrant by yourself.

I personally like to make an Eisenhower Decision Matrix on an Excel spreadsheet so that I can see all of the tasks I am responsible for and their relative positions on the spreadsheet. While it is somewhat arbitrary, the spreadsheet cells can show me how much more urgent or how much more important one task is from another. The spreadsheet is a living document for me, and I edit it as deadlines approach and as new things become added to my to-do list.

Sharena’s Sample Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Decisions, decisions. What to do, and when. And how. Through using Six Thinking Hats and the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, you have the tools to make effective decisions and to update your course of action as new information arises. By thinking clearly, you can move forward when confronted with life’s crossroads and distractors.

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References:

de Bono, Edward (1985). Six Thinking Hats: An Essential Approach to Business Management. Little, Brown, & Company. ISBN 0–316–17791–1 (hardback) and 0316178314 (paperback).

Eisenhower, Introducing the Eisenhower Matrix, https://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/ (Accessed March 18, 2020).

When “The Innovation” was an active Medium publication, this story was curated there. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Michigan, Intvo, SquadNest, or Valence Vibrations. All images used in this story were produced by the author.

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Sharena Rice, PhD

All in for neuro. Always on an adventure. Sunnyvale, CA ☀️