Bob works in IT. He’s a systems administrator looking after a VMware “farm”. He has a pager. He gets tickets. He gets email. He gets phone calls. He’s got a lot to do.
Alice works in IT. She’s a project manager, looking after the projects to on-board new applications to the VMware farm. She creates pager alerts. She creates tickets. She calls Bob. She gets called by application developers who want to know what the hold ups on the project are, and what exactly she’s been paid for, if not to deliver on time.
You can feel the tension, hell you’ve probably been in this situation yourself or you’ve observed it. Then someone with a positive outlook on life decides to ask the teams: “How can we improve our lot? Can we do something new, to inject some fun into our day and get more stuff done at the same time? Is it possible? Let’s have a company offsite, get away from things for a day and see if we can think a bit differently.”
Oh dear. Bob thinks about how a camel is a horse designed by committee, and Alice looks at her Project Schedule and shakes her head in dismay.
You can probably predict what happens at the offsite. Entrenched views. Negative comments. Stunted contributions. Then people wonder how much the offsite is costing given it has yielded no results. Is it possible to avoid this scenario? Yes. It is. Moreover, it has to be. Those that can do it different will win.
Everyone, including Bob and Alice, agrees to do this meeting differently. Everyone wants things to improve and everyone can see the possible bad outcome and they want to avoid that as much as everyone wants to avoid attending a poor presentation. Nobody wants to be part of a failed meeting; nobody wants to be the negative naysaying doom merchant: but how can we do things differently?
Enter, stage left, Edward de Bono and his Six Thinking Hats. This is a method of getting a group to think in the same direction, and to really think. A few constraints set the thinking process free. Here’s what everyone, including Bob and Alice, agrees to before attending the offsite:
- Chairman – The meeting will be chaired by someone from outside the company, and this person will drive the interactions using the Six Thinking Hats. Effectively this chairperson will drive the start / end Blue Hat sessions (see details on hat colours later), and in between will drive the change of hats keeping timings and encouraging contributions.
- Group Sync – Everyone in the meeting uses the same colour hat at the same time. When the meeting changes hat colour, everyone agrees to change hat colour and change their perspective. That means the group is thinking in parallel, the key to all of this.
- Hat Sequence – The sequence of hats is directed by the chairman, and this can be adapted as the day progresses. Hats are worn for short periods. People are encouraged to leave the group for short periods to think about progress. This is different from side bar conversations. Nothing developed outside the room is considered after the meeting.
- Scribe – The contributions of the group are maintained by a scribe, which is not the chairman nor one of the attendees. The attendees can use whiteboards and other facilities, but the official scribing is done by an independent.
- Disruptors – If someone thinks they can break the parallel group thinking approach, they risk being ejected from the group. This has to be an outcome. The most important aspect of the day is group thinking, not individual perspective. Everyone agrees to this, anyone that doesn’t will not attend.
What are the hats?
Bob and Alice are warned that each of the hats has anti-patterns, which you can think of as one of the group not believing in that hat and refusing to sync with the group. The group has to look for, and reject, these:
- Anti-blue hat – “this way of thinking doesn’t work”; “it’s just a way of controlling the group and suppressing genuine opinion”
- Anti-white hat – “the information is already out there, we don’t need to waste time here”; “instead of talking about the information we could be out there getting and understanding it”
- Anti-black hat – “Oh you’re always pointing out what can’t work, why don’t you be positive for once”; “let’s not be negative, let’s just look positive for today”
- Anti-red hat – “This is no time for emotion: logic and analysis is what we need”; “Only cowboys use gut feel”
- Anti-green hat – “We’ve already tried that”; “That will never work here”; “Stupid idea, what are you, Californian?”
- Anti-yellow hat – “we need to do market analysis, thinking won’t give us answers”; “define good”
Ed de Bono has a point about thinking: the majority of us are not taught how to do it. We’re taught the classic logical approach, the scientific method if you like. But we’re mostly taught the method, and not the hypotheses piece: who comes up with the hypotheses in the first place? Thinking is about coming up with a hypotheses just as much as it is about solving the problem.
I reluctantly bet that most people dismiss this as “yet another useless framework”. Likely a naysayer will torpedo it, and I can just imagine someone saying “It will never work because everyone in the group has to agree and herding cats is hard”.
If that’s you, then perhaps you’re forever doomed to relive the angry meeting, or the passive aggressive group stand-off where nothing gets done and everyone hates meetings. Imagine how much fun and rewarding and useful meetings might be? Perhaps the hats can give you that, maybe not. You won’t know until you try.