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by Jane Allen | March 10, 2009

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Dr. Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats technique is a thinking framework that allows all aspects of a question to be investigated, one at a time, without letting just one thinking mode dominate the process. Groups and organizations use it to enhance creativity and productivity, solve problems, and make decisions. But you can use it, too, to help with your career change. To illustrate the Six Thinking Hats method, here's an example:

Sam is a top salesman for the Mighty Big Widget Distributing Co. He wants to start his own widget distributing company and work for himself.

Sam puts on his White Hat. White Hat thinking is neutral, just the facts thinking. It's used for defining what's needed and gathering data and information (what do I have, what do I want to have, what's missing and how can I get it?). Sam knows he has no experience running a business. He realizes he'll probably need a small business loan. For that he needs to put together a business plan, including an estimate of start-up costs and monthly overhead. He decides to contact the SBA first to see what help they offer.

Yellow Hat is logical, positive thinking (brightness, optimism). It looks for value, feasibility, why something will work and what benefits it will offer. Sam knows that widget sales are booming. He's been in the widget biz for several years, he's good at selling them, and thinks he can make more money working for himself. He knows that one of his customers, the widget buyer from the Number One Customer Co., will continue buying from him after he leaves the Mighty Big Widget Co. He feels very positive about that. Profit from those orders alone might pay most of his overhead.

Red Hat is for emotions, hunches, and intuition with no explanations or justifications necessary. This thinking doesn't have to be supported by logic and gives the thinker permission to make any suggestion. Sam feels he'll be happier working for himself instead of for the Mighty Big Widget Co. His intuition says that widget sales will increase over the next five years. He has a hunch that several of his other clients--in addition to the Number One Customer Co.--will stay with him when he starts his new business.

Black Hat thinking is always logical and cautious, but never negative--a devil's advocate kind of thinking. The Black Hat asks, "Does this idea fit the facts? Does it fit my experience?" Sam knows that selling widgets involves lots of paperwork, and he's not good at paperwork. He doesn't like it. Also, Sam has heard that about 50 percent of small businesses fail within two years. He'd like to think that won't happen to him, but cautious thinking--especially since he has no experience running a business--says he can't ignore those facts.

Green Hat thinking is creative and looks at alternatives. With his Green Hat on, it occurs to Sam that he can start the business out of his home and save the cost of office space rental. He decides to talk to his friendly neighborhood banker and to other small business owners to ask questions about starting a business. An alternative to the dreaded paperwork problem is finding someone to work for him--someone who can take care of things while he's out knocking on doors. He remembers that one of his neighbors, Sally, used to be an office manager. He asks if she's interested in a part-time job, but says he can't pay much to start. Sam and Sally put on their Green Hats and come up with a money arrangement that works for both of them.

After he talks with Sally, Sam puts on his Blue Hat. Blue Hat is process thinking, as in, "What hat do I need now?" With his Blue Hat on, Sam knows he wants to do some more Green Hat thinking about expanding Sally's responsibilities. While talking with her, he learned that Sally has other experience and talents that could be very helpful to him. His Green Hat thinking gives him ideas like having her design forms, set up a client database, and create mailers to announce the new business.

Sam continued using his six hats beyond the planning and start-up phases. Whenever he had a difficult decision to make, he would begin trying on different hats. It became an automatic response for him.

The next time you have options to sort out, give this a try. Remember to wear only one hat at a time and allow each to operate without interference from the others. (The others will get their turn.) The White Hat is generally the best starting point because gathering the initial data on what you have and what you want will give you more information to work with as you try on the rest of the hats. Feel free to put on the other hats in whatever order you feel most comfortable with. Remember to have fun with this exercise and don't let thoughts of limitations restrict your flow of ideas. Let me know how this works for you!

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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