Problem Solving and Decision-Making in Negotiation


Assessing a Decision Based on Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats Technique

In the book Six Thinking Hats Edward de Bono describes the process of parallel thinking. This process means looking at problems from all angles at once. Edward de Bono uses the example of four people all looking at the same house. One person is looking at the front. Another is looking at the back. The other is looking at the left side. The final person is looking at the right side. These people are all arguing about what the house looks like, while each has a different view of the house. The fact is that what everyone is seeing is part of what the house looks like. But as long as they are all only seeing one side, they will never agree. They will also never really understand what the entire house looks like. The four people then walk around the house and view all sides. Finally, they all agree on what the house looks like. Now that they have seen the house from all angles, they also have a view of the house that is closer to what it is really like. The same process applies to solving a problem and making a decision about what to do about the problem. If you look at the problem from only one angle, you do not understand it fully. However, if you look at the decision from as many angles as possible, you understand it more fully and come up with a better decision. This approach also means that various views are considered fully instead of people arguing based on their own viewpoint. Edward de Bono explains the difference by saying that “in traditional thinking, if two people disagree, there is an argument in which each tries to prove the other party wrong. In parallel thinking, both views, no matter how contradictory, are put down in parallel” (de Bono 1999, p. 4). Just like in looking at the house, all the views are shared and then a complete picture is gained. Edward de Bono offers the six thinking hats technique as a way of allowing parallel thinking to occur. The technique involves separating different types of thinking so they can all be used, but without competing against each other. In this technique, there are six hats and they are all used to look at the problem in a different way. The six hats and the type of thinking they represent are:

white hat — used for thinking about information red hat — used for thinking about feelings, intuition and emotion black hat — used for thinking about negative points, such as problems and difficulties yellow hat — used for thinking about positive points, such as the benefits and positive outcomes green hat — used for creative thinking blue hat — used for controlling the process

To consider how the six thinking hats technique can be used to solve problems and make better decisions, a real situation will now be described. The decision that will be described was made without the technique. By considering how the technique could have improved the decision made, the usefulness of the six thinking hats technique will be shown.

The decision that was recently made involved creating a new marketing plan for a product. This decision was made based on a problem, which was that the product was not selling as well as expected. Based on this, the sales and marketing team were called into a meeting. At the meeting, the reasons for the low sales were discussed. The marketing manager then told everyone he wanted a new marketing plan developed and wanted the focus of the marketing plan to be decided. The team discussed options for the marketing plan. This involved several people suggesting ideas, with other people responding by either supporting the idea or stating problems with it. The idea that gained the most support was then selected as the one to follow. The rest of the meeting involved discussing and agreeing on the details. Several team members were then assigned tasks to complete for the plan to go ahead. The decision made did achieve positive results as sales did increase. However, there may also have been better decisions that could have achieved better results. This will now be considered by discussing what would have happened if the decision was made using six hats thinking.

The first of the six hats is the white hat. White hat thinking means looking at data and information. With this hat on, people might consider what data is known about the problem, what information they have, and what data or information would help to make a good decision. In the case of the decision made, there was very little white hat thinking. The known problem was that sales were down. This problem was based on sales data. However, there was no thinking that looked into the reason that sales were down. Nobody asked if the cause of the low sales were known and nobody asked if there was any information that could help to decide on a suitable campaign or strategy. Using white hat thinking would have helped in several ways. Firstly, if the reason for the low sales was looked into, this might have shown that marketing was not the reason for the low sales. Another factor may have been recognized to explain the data. With this factor known, whatever the problem was could then be fixed. For example, analysis might have shown that there were new competitors in the market with cheaper products. This may explain the drop in sales. The action to take would then take this into account. In this case, the best solution might not be to create a new marketing campaign. Instead, the best solution might be to lower the price to match that of competing products. One of the important points is that the marketing campaign will probably still increase sales. However, it also does not deal with the base problem. Therefore, sales will still be lower than they should be. This show how finding the cause of a problem helps to make the right decision. This is also described by Daft (1997, p. 288) who says that “managers make a mistake if they jump right into generating alternatives without first exploring the cause of the problem more deeply.” This was a mistake made, with the causes not considered at all. Instead, the focus was on finding a solution. It seems likely that the solution found would have been a better one if the causes had of been known. White hat thinking may have also involved looking at past sales data. For example, what happened to sales during past marketing campaigns? Which ones were most effective? Which ones were least effective? What other products are selling well and why? This information could have helped to identify suitable solutions. One of the positive points of this is that the best solution would have been chosen based on data and not just based on opinion.

The second of the six hats is the red hat. Red hat thinking means looking at emotions, feelings, and intuition. The most important point about red hat thinking in this situation is that the decision made was based on emotions, feelings, and intuition. For each solution that was stated, people either accepted it and supported it or rejected it. The acceptance or rejection of the solution was not based on any valid reason but was more people saying that they either liked or disliked the idea. If red hat thinking had of been used, this thinking based on intuition and emotion would have been separated from the other types of thinking. This means that it still would have been used, but would have been used along with the other types of considerations. I think greater white hat thinking would also have made people realize that red hat thinking was being relied on too much. For example, in considering alternative solutions Peter Mayer (1995) says that the best solution is the one that fits the desired results. Ralph L. Keeney (1994) agrees and adds that the best solution should fit the desired results and use the least resources. If more white hat thinking had of been used, the decision-making process would have included deciding how to assess alternative solutions. It may have been noted that the best decision should get results, be completed as quickly as possible, and cost the least amount of money. The alternatives suggested could then have been considered based on how well they met this criteria. As it was, the decisions were assessed based on no clear criteria. Very few people explained why they were accepting or rejecting a solution so it is not clear how solutions were being assessed. However, it is likely they the solutions were not based on the best reasons possible. Janis and Mann (2000) describe how most people make decisions based on satisficing, which means looking for a solution that is good enough, not a solution that is the best. Simon (1979) makes a similar point where he argues that people do not make decisions based on rational reasons. March (1994) also notes that decision-makers do not consider decisions fully, instead tending to quickly reject unsuitable ones for reasons that are more personal than logical. For example, one solution may be the best alternative for solving the problem and so the best one for the company. However, the people considering the decision alternatives are probably not putting the needs of the company ahead of their own needs. Therefore, the best decision for the company may not be chosen because a person considers it too much work or does not like the kind of work involved. As noted, in this case there were no decision criteria set to base choosing the decision on. With only intuition, feelings, and emotion to guide the decision, it seems unlikely that the decision chosen really was the best one for the company. If the six hats technique had of been used, the emotional thinking could have been separated and combined with the others. It would then have been part of the decision but not the main driving force of the decision. It is likely that this would have resulted in a better decision being made.

The third of the six hats is the black hat. Black hat thinking means looking at negative information. It means considering what might go wrong and what problems might occur. This type of thinking was used with every possible solution suggested, with people immediately seeing the negative and rejecting a solution because of it. It must be noted that for every solution there will be problems. This does not mean that no solution is suitable, but only means that no solution is perfect. The key then is not to find a solution that does not have a negative side, but only to find one that has enough of a positive side to be the best solution. The problem with the approach taken in the meeting is that anything negative found was a reason for the solution to be rejected completely. In reality, some of these solutions may have been better than the ones chosen. However, they were rejected so quickly they did not have the chance to be fully considered. The six thinking hats technique would have been useful because it would have allowed the negative points to be raised, but this process would not have involved making a decision to reject them. Instead, the problems could have been raised by black hat thinking and the problems would have become part of data. The problems would then be considered using white hat thinking, with this also involving considering all the other data at the same time. This would have allowed each potential solution to be considered more fully. Another problem with the way the decision was made was that black hat thinking was not used to consider the solution was chosen. This solution was chosen because people were in support of it. However, there are no perfect solutions so it will have problems. These problems should have been considered so they can be predicted and action can be taken to manage them. It may even have been able to spot reasons that the solution would not work. If this was the case, using black hat thinking could have stopped time and money being spent on an ineffective campaign. It is likely that this will result in problems in the future and that people will not be prepared for the problems. Even if the solution does work and only has minor problems, using black hat thinking could have helped the team improve the plans and make them even more effective.

The fourth of the six hats is the yellow hat. Yellow hat thinking means looking for positive points. It means looking at what will happen if everything goes right and if the solution gets the best results possible. It means looking at the benefits of each solution and seeing the good that each solution has to offer. This solution would have been useful when coming up with solutions. If yellow hat thinking had of been used to see the positive points before black hat thinking was used to see the negatives, none of the solutions would have been rejected. Every solution that had some positive to offer would have stayed and been considered fully. This is important when it is considered that the positive outcomes of the solution is what the whole decision-making process is occurring for. A problem has been noted and the solution will solve that problem. This means that what the solution can achieve is a very important consideration. In the decision making process, each solution was not considered fully because the negative was considered before the positive. There may have been decisions that could have achieved great results, but this did not have the chance to be seen. This is also important because a decision with strong positive points could have outweighed its negative points. For example, consider a decision that was rejected immediately because it was considered as costing too much. If this decision had of been looked at with yellow hat thinking, it would have been seen that the solution had the potential to increase sales far more than any other solution. This means that the positive points far outweigh the negative point and it would have been the best solution. This shows how failing to use white hat thinking resulted in good solutions being ignored. If white hat thinking had of been used, all the possible solutions would have been judged more fairly and a better decision would have been made.

The fifth of the six hats is the green hat. Green hat thinking uses creative thinking. Very little creative thinking was used in making the decisions. Instead, all of the solutions suggested were based on past methods used. There was not even any creative thinking seen in how people approached solving the problem. Creative thinking could have helped the team come up with new ideas and approaches. These new ideas may have been far more effective than just reusing an old approach. This is especially true when it is considered that the company is competing against more and more companies, while trying to achieve the same sales results. It seems that as the competition gets tougher, the company will have to do something differently to stay ahead of everyone else. With this in mind, some creative thinking could have helped the team come up with something new that would work and help the company stand out from everyone else. Six hats thinking would have helped by separating the creative part of coming up with new ideas with the assessment part. The team could have used brainstorming, which is defined as “an idea-generating process that encourages alternatives while withholding criticism” (Robbins, Bergman, & Stagg 1997, p. 197). This did not occur in the meeting because analysis of solutions was happening as each one was presented. It was difficult to think creatively, since the first reaction to any new idea was to reject it simply because it is new. It was also difficult to express unique ideas when almost every solution suggested was immediately rejected. The six hats thinking technique could have allowed people to think of new ideas, but without them being assessed. This would have allowed more freedom to think of ideas and express ideas. Another problem in the meeting was that everyone was thinking as one. If one person rejected an idea, the whole team followed. If one person accepted an idea, the whole team followed. This process is called groupthink. Janis (1982, p. 9) notes that groupthink occurs when “the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative solutions.” This is what was happening in the meeting, with people seeming to agree to reject a solution if one team member did without even considering the solution for themselves. In another study Janis (1971) makes the same point by noting that people in a group will tend to say they agree with someone just to keep the group cohesive even if they do not really agree. The six thinking hat technique would have helped because green hat thinking could have allowed people to think for themselves without being impacted by other people’s opinions. Furnham (1993) notes that most people want to be individuals and will strive to think for themselves and voice their own opinions. All a team needs for this to occur is to give everyone the opportunity to state their own ideas without judgment. Green hat thinking would have allowed this to occur and would have generated more ideas and more creative ideas. It is likely that this would have resulted in a better solution being found.

The last of the six hats is the blue hat. Blue hat thinking refers to the control process. This type of thinking is used by the person who is in charge of the meeting. They will direct and manage the meeting. This would have helped because the leader could have led people through the thinking processes. This would also have helped because the leader could have made sure that everyone is able to voice their ideas. Herriot and Pemberton (1995) note the importance of allowing everyone to be involved in decision-making processes. This did not occur in the decision-making process because the outspoken team members took over. With blue hat thinking, the leader could have seen this and invited less outspoken members to have their say. The leader could also have asked questions and asked people to explain their reasons for rejecting a solution. Having one person at the meeting using blue hat thinking to control the process would have helped the decision be made more rationally. It is likely that this would have improved the decision made.

Each of the six thinking hats have now been described. It has been shown that using each of the thinking hats would have helped the decision-making process. Each of the thinking hats allows a different type of thinking. If each of these types of thinking had of been used, it is likely that a better solution would have been made. This shows that the six thinking hats technique is a useful technique for problem solving and decision making.


Daft, R.L. (1997). Management. Fort Worth, TX: Dryden Press.

de Bono, E. (1999). Six Thinking Hats. New York: Back Bay Books.

Furnham, A. (1993). “Reaping the Benefits of Teamwork.” Financial Times 19 May 1993: 12-14.

Herriot, P., & Pemberton, C. (1995). Competitive Advantage through Diversity. London: Sage.

Janis, I.L., & Mann, L. (2000). Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice and Commitment. New York: The Free Press.

Janis, I.L. (1982). Groupthink. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Janis, I.L. (1971). “Groupthink.” In Psychological Dimensions of Organizational Behavior. Ed. B. Straw. New York: Macmillan: 514-522.

Keeney, R.L. (1994). “Creativity in Decision-Making with Value-Focused Thinking.” Sloan Management Review Summer 1994: 33-41.

March, J. (1994). A Primer on Decision Making. New York: The Free Press.

Mayer, P. (1995). “A Surprisingly Simple Way to Make Better Decisions.” Executive Female March-April 1995: 13-14.

Robbins, S.P., Bergman, R., & Stagg, I. (1997). Management. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Simon, H.A. (1979). Rational Decision Making in Business Organizations. American Economic Review, 69, 493-513.

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