A blog.

Put on a hat when asking questions (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series.

You can work through each of the hats in any order but it’s more effective when two hats pair up. This isn’t to play each off each other or fall into debate (something your use of the hats is trying to avoid). Rather, the paired hats work well together and you may run the discussion with one hat then review with its pair.

The pairing also helps manage the discussion by:

  1. Separating Black and Red hat thinking - this is helpful as many people have decided (or been told) that Black hat thinking is negative thinking. A statement such as “This won’t work as the network team don’t get it” is Red hat thinking and not Black hat. A statement such as “The network team may not like this as it opens up the system too much” is Black hat as it raises a concern that needs to be looked into.
  2. Pairing the White and Red hat so as to help in determining if a statement of discussion is reflecting a fact or a feeling. These can sometimes be difficult to discern so having them in close proximity can help guide us in clarifying what’s being put forward.

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of the hats:

  • White hat: The white hat focuses on facts.
  • Red hat: The red hat focuses on feelings
  • Black hat: The black hat focuses on caution
  • Yellow hat: The yellow hat focuses on optimism
  • Green hat: The green hat focuses on being creative
  • Blue hat: The blue hat focuses on the thinking process

So let’s look at the 3 pairings that work well.

White and red

This explores facts and feelings and can highlight areas such as processes that aren’t working.

For example, an organisation may provide an online service that imposes a process on users that reflects the organisational structure very closely. Discussions with users may reveal that, whilst they can use the system, they find the process rather obscure as they’re not part of your organisation. This leads to frustration (expressed with the Red hat) that can help refine the process (White hat).

When looking at new systems being introduced within an organisation, the White and Red hats can help with change management. The new system may introduce a need for re-skilling and new processes and it’s important to determine people how they feel about this and how they can be encouraged to engage.

Black and yellow

System security is a great area for the Black and Yellow hats to pair up. It often feels like developers wear yellow hats (“this great new system really helps us analyse our customer needs”) but the systems administrators wear black hats (“this system looks like it opens up too much information”).

Both statements are important to analyse and having both developers and sys admins wear the Black and Yellow hats gives them the opportunity to share their understanding and can really help a DevOps approach.

Green and blue

There’s an increasing amount of literature around building creativity in organisations and good use of the Blue hat to guide and encourage thinking, rather than debate, can help to tap the knowledge and skills of everyone involved.

The Blue hat helps call back the team when they’re deep in Green hat territory. It’s important to keep an eye on requirements (White hat), possible areas of concern (Black hat) etc but it’s also important not to keep interjecting or you risk breaking a useful chain of thought.

The pairings listed above provide a handy guide to working through the thinking process but there are some areas for caution so always have the Blue hat ready:

  • The Black hat focuses on caution and isn’t a whinge-fest. It’s important to let people express optimistic views without being constantly rained on by someone who (proudly) calls themselves a “Black hat thinker” - they’re more likely to be expressing a Red hat thought. I like to start with the Yellow hat and see what people like then start to explore areas that need a critical eye. The goal is not to be all sunshine and lollipops - it’s to develop an effective solution.
  • Creativity (Green hat) is important and can help an organisation become a leader in their market. However, few projects are a completely blank slate so it’s important to use the Blue hat to make sure that the team references other hats and can justify their actions - management is more likely to support something “out of the box” if you can explain it fully.
  • Whilst the White hat focuses on facts, the “truth” can be a fickle and personal thing. Sifting and sorting Yellow and White hat thinking can be tricky, especially when you’re looking at complex problems.
  • Establishing a common language/definition may be very useful here so that statements can be more quantifiable. For example “improved student outcomes” will have a large range of meaning depending on if you’re talking to: students, teachers, or administration
  • Even legislation (law) may not be easily described as “fact” - especially if it hasn’t been tested. Instead of saying something like “raw data cannot be copyrighted” you may have to settle on a statement such as “raw data is unlikely to pass the 'sweat of the brow' provision of copyright law”. The more definite you can be with your facts, the easier they are to use when referring to them.
  • Some people like to use statement prefixes such as “It’s well-known that…” and “I think we all agree that…” to enforce their point and knowingly or to (perhaps unknowingly) quiet most dissent. It’s important to check across that group if it is indeed a fact (White hat) or a feeling (Red hat). Both are important so don’t dismiss the statement - it needs to be categorised and noted - throwing it away is likely to motivate the statement’s originator to try to undermine the discussion.

In the next (and final) instalment I’ll offer an example of how I use the Six Thinking Hats in my work.

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