Seldom do I find a legitimate improvement on existing thinking processes, but there certainly is one in Six Thinking Hats. De Bono reports that this process reduces time spent in meetings by 20 to 90 percent, based on experiences reported to him since the book was first published. It also seems that many people feel that the evaluations that emerge are more useful ones, as well.
De Bono himself makes this statement: "The Six Thinking Hats method may well be the most important change in human thinking for the past twenty-three hundred years." You'll have to decide for yourself, if the book lives up to that claim.
De Bono diagnoses the fundamental problem of decision-making as being muddled thinking. Groups are simply not well equipped to deal with a wide range of data and perspectives simultaneously. The meeting often bogs down into conflicts of personalities and over focus on inimportant points. By creating a simpler way to think about issues, de Bono claims to eliminate many of these problems.
The process is not one that I have used, but it makes sense to me as an improvement over less structured evaluation methods. It can be used by an individual or a group working together. The amount of structure you use can be high, or you can be more ad hoc.
People learn best when they are playing, and the six hat approach clearly encourages a spirit of play. By giving each person a role (and each person eventually playing all of the roles), the method reduces the amount of personality-based conflict, encourages more participation, and gives validation to many different ways to present the question at hand. This should make each person feel more affirmed and invested in the process. Also, since the route is focused on getting lots out on the table, it also suspends judgment longer so that more ideas can emerge. As such, it is closer to the Japanese method of making evaluations than the American one (as de Bono points out).
Here is the color scheme. Blue is the process coordinator (like the conductor of an orchestra) and starts and leads off the meeting (plus helps keep it on process) -- except sometimes it is better to have red finish just after blue summarizes at the end.
Red goes second, and represents emotions and feelings to present both positive and negative emotional reactions, as well as more subtle things like intuition.
It seems to be more free form from there. Let's go to yellow next, which is speculative and positive -- the optimistic side of the case. This view is to open up the possibilities.
Naturally, that has to be balanced by looking at the downside, which is black (cautious and careful). This hat is normally worn the most in evaluations, and can easily be overdone. The idea is not to be negative, but to search out the risks.
White plays an important, but neutral, role -- pointing out the facts that are known or are likely to be true. Care in characterizing what is known is important.
Green is the wild card -- finding alternatives. This color connects very well with de Bono's original claim to fame, as someone who has good ideas for stimulating individual creativity. By giving each person a role in being creative in a meeting, he extends that focus in a useful way
De Bono makes two interesting comments about how all this leads to decisions: "In the end, all decisions are really red hat." But we should assume that it is a more informed set of emotions and feelings than would exist otherwise. "Decisions seem to make themselves." Knowing how painful decisions are in many circumstances, if that were the only benefit, that would be enough to make this book essential.
My suggestion is that you give this process a trial run with something unimportant before unleashing it on a big issue. Otherwise, you might be stalled by lack of understanding about how the process works. Keep practicing until you are satisfied that it is working well.
Good luck with overcoming your stalled thinking about making decisions and the issues that face you and your organization!
Coauthor of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise (available in August 2000) and The 2,000 Percent Solution