Teambuilding: Hats off to de Bono

Despite gaining widespread recognition in the 1980s, Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method of teambuilding is no longer fashionable. Yet some trainers remain convinced of its relevance today.

Its use may now be limited, but the name Edward de Bono chose for his method to encourage teambuilding is not easily forgotten. Called Six Thinking Hats, it sounds more like a parlour game than a radical approach to training.

The hats are colour coded, with each one representing a different approach to thinking.

The white hat covers information that is known or needed about a problem the red hat signifies feelings, hunches and intuition black represents potential difficulties yellow potential benefits green creativity and blue is meeting objectives. Each team member separates their thinking about an issue or problem into the different thinking hats.

De Bono created the method after reaching the conclusion that there are six ways of thinking associated with problem solving.

Simplicity

Richard Owers, training consultant for MaST, says: “It’s a very simplistic thing and that’s half the battle for training – taking a complex idea and making it simple.”

He says proof of this has come from using the idea abroad where English was not even the second language of the trainees.

David Pardey, senior research and policy manager at the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), agrees: “It encourages people to recognise that their cognitive state at any one time shapes how they approach problems. It gets people to think ‘what is it that is causing me to address a problem in a particular way and is there a better way of doing it?'”

De Bono, a specialist in creative thinking, argued that his method has the potential to tap into the collective knowledge and ideas of a team rather than have each team member pitted against each other. This means each person thinks constructively and in parallel with colleagues, which in turn eliminates egos and cuts meeting times.

But after gaining widespread recognition 20 years ago, the method is no longer fashionable.

Pardey says: “Some approaches tend to get superseded, not necessarily because they are bad or wrong or because a new one comes along that is significantly better. People taking part in training need to do something new, partly because if they are doing the same training all the time, it can be incredibly monotonous.”

However, Indigo Business Services, the UK distributor for de Bono’s methods, says Six Hats is currently used by high-profile organisations such as the National Audit Office and the British Council. It is launching a series of training workshops on Six Hats this month. They take place in Bristol, Leeds, Glasgow and London and cost £475.

Relevance

Chuck Dymer, an Indigo consultant who has been teaching the method for 20 years, is passionate about its continuing relevance. “We’re at a time when it’s very important that people re-think the way they do their business. Things are unstable, and to survive, we need to think of new ways of doing things.”

One reason for his continuing enthusiasm is a belief that the method works better than when originally launched.

“When I first started doing this, it was just a workshop. People would just come and be trained, and it was hard for them to go back and train other people. We’ve become better and better at making this stick in the business culture and really work. We can give people who have gone through ‘hats’ the toolset to spread that concept throughout their organisation,” Dymer says.

Pardey questions whether the method is more of an approach to group problem solving than teambuilding. “I think Six Hats’ main strength lies in that: it contributes to working as a team but team working is a much bigger and more complex process.”

Dymer agrees. “It’s analogous to any game. It does not necessarily make people cohesive when operating outside of the rules but, as long as they stick to the six hats’ rules, they do work as a team,” he says.

Case study: British Council

As an internal consultant for the British Council specialising in innovation, Wendy Jordan introduced the Six Hats method a year ago. “I was looking at how we could make meetings more effective and, having had a life-long interest in de Bono’s work, thought it would be an interesting thing to introduce.”

She says she was more concerned about the method’s track record than its current popularity. “I wanted to find something that was robust and that all the psychology behind it worked and had been researched.”

Jordan believes the main benefit has been the way people are encouraged to think in parallel with each other at the same time. “You get the bits of thinking you need done in a meeting at the right moment rather than spread out in a linear fashion through following a traditional agenda.”

Positive feedback from the people using the method has led to five departments initiating their own training programmes without any prompting from her. Around 300 people have either been trained in or introduced to the method.

“The council employs 7,500 people worldwide so that’s quite a small proportion,” says Jordan. “But it has currency within the organisation and the people who have used it are very positive about it.”

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