Product management is a highly collaborative profession. The best products come to market, achieve product-market fit, and scale through not one person, but many. This process can be highly enjoyable and fulfilling when problems, ideas, and solutions take shape through group brainstorming.
Sometimes, though, this process can feel never-ending. Every product manager has found themselves in a back-and-forth debate about a customer problem, a feature’s value, or a particular risk — spinning in circles but never quite getting anywhere.
Breaking through these debate cycles (or minimizing their occurrence) may require a new way of doing things; a new way of approaching problem and solution discovery.
In this article, we’ll discuss a proven technique that may aid product managers in such situations: the six thinking hats technique.
Table of contents
- What is the six thinking hats technique?
- How the six thinking hats technique applies to product management
- Benefits of using the six thinking hats technique
- Potential disadvantages and pitfalls to using this technique
- How can I apply the six thinking hats in my organization?
What is the six thinking hats technique?
Six thinking hats is a parallel thinking technique developed by psychologist and physician Edward de Bono, introduced in his book of the same name. The purpose of this technique is to produce better thinking and decision-making through a facilitated process of looking at problems from every angle.
You can use six thinking hats in many situations, from individual thinking to group brainstorming. In a group setting, the technique becomes a form of parallel thinking (also coined by de Bono), a process of splitting focus in specific directions toward a common objective. This is in contrast to adversarial thinking, which represents the “spinning in circles” debate of arguing a single idea, which can delay progress or cause a group to not consider every angle to the problem.
The role of each hat
Six thinking hats achieves parallel thinking in a group setting by having the entire group wear one hat at a time:
- The White Hat promotes objective thinking and focuses solely on the facts, including available data, clarifying questions about that data, and any gaps in the data that need filling
- The Green Hat asks the group to shift to a creative mindset and generate solutions to the problem based on the information available
- The Red Hat calls for expressing feelings and intuition. This is where the group can share emotional perceptions and hunches, including likes, dislikes, and fears, without judgment or regard for supporting evidence
- The Yellow Hat looks at the positives — considering what could go well and how the ideas can be even stronger. Unlike the Red Hat, this is based not on emotion but on logical interpretation of the facts and solutions
- The Black Hat (also based on logic) is the antithesis to the Yellow Hat and considers what could go wrong, including risk management and negative downstream impacts to the overarching strategy
- The Blue Hat is the only one not worn by the entire group, but by a single facilitator. This person is responsible for organizing the group around the problem, managing the process, getting the group back on track if they veer from the designated hat, documenting discussion outcomes and plans, and defining the next steps
The hats don’t have to be used in a specific order and don’t have to be used only once. Hats can be revisited for further thinking if the group feels it necessary based on perspectives that surfaced throughout the session.
If you aren’t sure where to start, the structure below provides a logical thinking path:
|1||Blue Hat||Set alignment around the problem|
|2||White Hat||Facts and data|
|3||Green Hat||Idea generation/solutioning|
|4||Red Hat||Feelings and intuition (emotional)|
|5||Yellow Hat||What could go well (logical)|
|6||Black Hat||What could go wrong (logical)|
|7||Blue Hat||Recap and next steps|
How the six thinking hats technique applies to product management
The core purpose of product management is to understand problems and identify the best solutions to those problems, which makes six thinking hats a viable framework for product managers to apply.
The technique can be used to strengthen understanding of a problem area, generate a diverse list of solutions, and evaluate those solutions from multiple angles. It can be particularly beneficial for prioritizing and de-risking solutions.
An example of how product managers can use six thinking hats is in brainstorming features to build that solve a specific customer problem:
- Blue Hat — provide context on the customer problem, why it matters, and why it’s important to solve now
- White Hat — discuss customer research, usage data, competitor and market insights, constraints, and the OKRs or KPIs that should be improved
- Green Hat — ideate product improvements and new features that could solve the customer problem, achieve the goals, and differentiate in the market
- Red Hat — intuitive and emotional reactions to the ideas proposed. Why does one idea feel right and another doesn’t? Are any of the ideas worrisome?
- Yellow Hat — discuss how the ideas benefit the customers, how much metrics could increase, and what other exciting avenues or iterations are enabled by an idea
- Black Hat — poke holes in the ideas, including why they may fail, what other metrics could be unintentionally harmed, and any risks that may arise
- Blue Hat — tie it all together, documenting each idea and associated benefits, risks, and other considerations. Ensure these are structured to facilitate prioritization and set the action plan for the next steps
This is just one example of how product managers can use six thinking hats. The technique can be effective in other areas, including quarterly planning and scoping technical requirements with engineering.
Benefits of using the six thinking hats technique
Three of the biggest benefits to using this technique are:
- Reducing conflict
- Soliciting diverse perspectives
- Conducting thorough brainstorming
In adversarial thinking, individuals actively poke holes in others’ recommendations by looking at them through opposing lenses. This normalizes judgment and swirling debate, which can create conflict and inhibit progress.
In the parallel thinking enabled by six thinking hats, the chances of this are smaller, since everyone is thinking through the same lens. For example, when everyone is wearing the Yellow Hat, there is no one to counter every positive thought with a negative one. That’s reserved for the Black Hat.
This approach helps reduce conflict, keep ideas flowing, and keep the momentum going forward.
The individual wearing the Blue Hat can bring forth more diverse perspectives by actively soliciting thoughts from everyone in the group.
While this should be a goal of facilitators in any brainstorming framework, six thinking hats makes it easier and more effective. It can be challenging to get ideas from quieter individuals when the loudest ones in a group are constantly jumping between pros, cons, risks, new ideas, and new data points.
With six thinking hats, you can specifically ask individuals to share their thoughts about whatever the focus is at that time. This enables diverse perspectives by ensuring everyone is heard, and can also help ideas evolve with a “yes and” mentality while everyone is on the same page.
In adversarial thinking or ideation frameworks that are more open-ended, there can be a tendency to focus on a few specific angles for the entirety of the session. For example, everyone may be so excited about the ideas and potential benefits that they neglect to consider risk management, creating problems down the road.
Six thinking hats is structured to ensure that no angle is missed, ultimately resulting in more thorough ideas and plans, while de-risking potential unknowns in the future.
Potential disadvantages and pitfalls to using this technique
Six thinking hats also has disadvantages and pitfalls to be aware of when considering the technique:
- Putting the wrong person in the Blue Hat
- Time management challenges
- The technique may not suit everyone’s thinking style
Putting the wrong person in the Blue Hat
The person in the Blue Hat needs to be assigned carefully. They should be someone who can provide clear instructions and background for the session, facilitate discussion and keep the momentum moving, participate in conflict resolution, and summarize the discussion and next steps.
Subscribe to our product management newsletter
Get articles like this to your inbox
While product managers may want to put themselves in this role, they should consider that they may not be effective participants for the other thinking hats. Even if they try to pull double duty, they may be so focused on generating ideas for the Green Hat that they neglect to manage the process or time.
For the best results, product managers should recruit a trusted colleague to act as the Blue Hat, so they can fully participate in the other thinking hats themselves.
Time management challenges
Time management is a crucial element of six thinking hats and again falls to the person donning the Blue Hat. Some tips for managing time in these sessions are:
- Schedule the meeting so it’s long enough to cover every hat at least once, but not so long that the group starts burning out
- Set a block of time for each hat, and adhere to it. If the conversation starts running into the next time block, respectfully bring it to conclusion and let everyone know it’s time to move on, and the discussion can be revisited at the end if there’s time
- During each block, keep an eye on the clock. If time is running low and only a few people have done most of the talking, be more active about soliciting others to share their thoughts so everyone contributes to every angle
It may not suit everyone’s thinking style
Not everyone has a knack for thinking of ideas or expressing their opinions on the spot. Some people need more time to think. This can be particularly challenging when they have to think a certain way at a certain time.
One way to mitigate this is to have a mix of quiet brainstorming and group discussion, where individuals write their thoughts on paper before sharing them with the group. This allows everyone to collect their thoughts without having to digest others’ thoughts simultaneously.
How can I apply the six thinking hats in my organization?
The best way to bring six thinking hats into your organization is to become a champion of it, and gradually introduce it to the work you’re leading.
You could first try it as a new framework for a brainstorming session in your product area. If you and others see the benefits of it, you can bring it to other parts of the organization and larger discussions, such as quarterly roadmap planning.
Remember that while the results and effectiveness promised by six thinking hats are large, in the end, it’s just another framework. The costs and risks of trying it are low, so if you’re interested, give it a shot and see what happens.
Worst case, the session isn’t as magical as expected, but you still come away with some good ideas and considerations.
Best case, it’s the perfect ideation framework for your organization and you become a hero for future planning cycles.
The six thinking hats technique is not unique to product management. In fact, you can find it in many different settings, including groups and individuals. If you want to bring it into your work, team, or life in general, I hope this article provides you with good background information and best practices to do so.
Featured image source: IconScout
LogRocket generates product insights that lead to meaningful action
LogRocket identifies friction points in the user experience so you can make informed decisions about product and design changes that must happen to hit your goals.
With LogRocket, you can understand the scope of the issues affecting your product and prioritize the changes that need to be made. LogRocket simplifies workflows by allowing Engineering and Design teams to work from the same data as you, eliminating any confusion about what needs to be done.
Get your teams on the same page — try LogRocket today.