Thinking about ‘Thinking Hats’

Thank you to the reader who responded to my post on ‘The 7th and 8th Thinking Hats‘ by asking: “Is there a 9th Thinking Hat? If so can you please tell me?” While I was originally going to reply to this query in the comments below the article, as I started drafting that reply, it grew into something more like another blog post – and so it has become.

Dear reader,

Thank you for your query. I see you are wearing your white hat to check your facts and your green hat to ask a question that could be a catalyst for new ideas.

My suggestion that there are other ways of thinking beyond de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats was intended to invite non-profit directors and managers to practice ‘reflective thinking‘. Perhaps this might qualify as the 9th hat in our collection. See also:

From another perspective, recognising the uniqueness of each person, it could be argued that there are as many hats as there are heads to wear them. That was an underlying theme in my post Filters and Factors in Board Deliberation, which described something of the rich complexity of thinking styles, methods, and perspectives employed in board deliberations, or indeed, in any meeting of two or more people.

Edward de Bono’s intention in publishing his books on lateral thinking and 6 Thinking Hats was to “provide a means for groups to plan thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive way, and in doing so to think together more effectively”. His 6 Thinking Hats symbolised the capacity to adopt different modes of thought by imaginatively ‘wearing’ each of the hats in a sequence, with different sequences suggested for various circumstances. Each hat evokes a shift in the focus of attention so that having used all 6, a more balanced and effective decision or solution will eventuate.

He was well aware of the tendency for individuals to focus on one style of thinking, and for groups to suffer ‘groupthink’, by which a narrow perspective is applied to solving problems and making decisions. Implicit in the use of a sequence of hats was a warning that using only one style of thinking would generate problems. For example, if you only ever wear a black hat, then all you ever see are reasons not to do something new. If you only ever wear a green hat then you are flitting from one new idea to the next, never weighing the cost or risks involved.

I’m sure he was also well aware of the diverse thinking styles employed by different occupational groups, cultures, and personality types. Diversity for Social Impact describes this diversity as follows:
Diversity of thought, or cognitive diversity, means the different ways people exhibit their preferred way of thinking.”

Diversity of thought is a good thing (see especially Lloyd Mander’s great work on this), but it needs to be used within a disciplined approach to governance and management if we are to achieve our purposes and goals. See also:

The invention of the ‘thinking hat‘ or ‘considering hat‘ predated de Bono by some centuries. Etymology online tells us that the figurative term ‘thinking cap‘ is from 1839, while its predecessor, the ‘considering cap‘, is from the 1650s. The cap and bells (1781) was the insignia of a fool, and if the ‘thinking cap‘ is intended to promote wisdom, the ‘fools cap’ might be considered its opposite – the ‘unthinking cap‘.

Throughout its history, the idiom ‘to put one’s thinking hat on’ has meant taking the time to think seriously and carefully about a matter. I may post a separate article on ‘thinking hat history’ in due course, but for now, let’s return to possible candidates for a 9th thinking hat.

To recap, the 7th hat I proposed was really only stacking the original 6 hats so that all perspectives and ways of thinking were used. Such ‘integral (or coherent) thinking‘ was commended as a way of achieving a balanced decision, having weighed the arguments using all thinking styles.

The 8th hat was ‘magical thinking‘, which is one of the forms of distorted thinking involving cognitive biases. The Cognitive Bias Codex, at last count, recorded over 180 kinds of bias through which we can distort our thinking. This could mean that when combined with the other hats mentioned above, there are nearly 190 thinking hats!

From time to time I have promoted reflective thinking by directors and executives, most recently in my post on Reflective Governance: the MELD Model. This blended the EDM (Evaluate Direct and Monitor) model with the triple loop learning model.

The first loop invites us to reflect on the question ‘What do we need to DO differently?‘. This can be described as an improvement process, with most of de Bono’s 6 original hats being useful in the process.

The second loop asks ‘How do we need to THINK differently?’. This loop has a developmental focus, and once again most of de Bono’s thinking styles (hats) can be employed.

The third loop asks ‘How do we need to BE different?‘ With this deeper level of reflection and learning, we are invited to step out of active participation in normal deliberative processes to perform a meta-analysis of our ‘state of being’ (which may also be called ‘ontological thinking‘). Reflecting on principles and purposes, and being open to transformation, are means by which we can achieve organisational renewal. While some of de Bono’s original hats might be used in this process, I suggest that the mental space employed for triple loop renewal thinking goes beyond even my 7th hat, which was described as ‘integral thinking‘.

Beyond asking ‘What’s the right decision in relation to this proposal or situation?’, it looks back on all aspects of the deliberation and poses questions like:

  • ‘What can we learn from our experience?’
  • ‘What would I do differently if faced with similar circumstances in the future?’
  • ‘What quality improvements could we make to our governance systems and processes?’
  • ‘How might we better ensure the integrity of our systems and processes?’

Speculative thinking‘, which might sometimes be called ‘futures thinking‘, is a variation of creative thinking. It asks ‘What would it look like if we did this or that?‘, or ‘What if circumstances changed in certain ways? It is probably not a candidate for the 9th thinking hat.

My recent post on ‘Ways of Knowing and Being in Organisational Culture‘ suggested some other ways in which different thinking styles might be applied in non-profit organisations. That article included a chart with 13 knowledge types, while a further four types were mentioned in the text, namely ethical knowing, indigenous knowing, spiritual knowing, and artistic knowing.

The cognitive processes used in board deliberations may normally only involve six or seven ways of thinking (as suggested by de Bono). However, if we were to place de Bono’s 6 thinking styles (hats) along a horizontal axis, together with integral thinking, magical thinking, reflective thinking, and ethical thinking, and then list the ways of knowing along a vertical axis, we may find that this matrix generates new insights into the diversity of thought styles present or required in our board rooms.

Digging deeper into each of the ways of knowing could also yield additional thinking styles (or hats). The domain knowledge, worldviews, and beliefs of members of professional and occupational groups can vary, but there can also be a tendency for them all to share certain mindsets and conceptual anchors which are quite different from those of people in other professions.

Directors from professions that require high levels of concentration on details and complex sets of factors might have a problem with a tendency to want to micro-manage their organisation. Directors whose profession involves the use of system thinking skills might be very good at understanding their organisation’s eco-system, but poor at ensuring strict compliance with externally imposed obligations. Our styles of thinking can be influenced by our training and the shared focus (culture) of our peers (confirmation bias).

The Law of the Instrument is the name given to the saying attributed to Abraham Maslow, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. This epigram implies that we each view the world (and any problem we must solve or decision we must make) through a particular lens, and that our actions and capacity to understand a situation are limited by our knowledge, perspectives, and beliefs.

I have also observed differences in thinking between directors responsible for governance and strategy, compared with executives and managers responsible for strategy execution and operations. Often the practicality of proposed initiatives (individually or collectively) is not well understood by directors. They are not intimately involved in the workplace, and so do not always recognise resource capacity limits, training and development needs, and other systems dynamics. Being open to advice and input from management is, therefore, an important part of the decision-making and problem-solving work of any board.

Different cultures and sub-cultures can also share certain dispositions, values, and beliefs. While this is usually a cause for celebration, it could also potentially constrain their ability to see through a multi-cultural lens.

The Ethnologue records some 6909 extant languages. Price’s Atlas of Ethnographic Societies records over 3814 distinct cultures having been described by anthropologists, certainly a major underestimate.”

These sociological and anthropological lenses are just two of a number of ‘cultural lenses’ (which are also ways of thinking) identified in my previous post on Multi-focal views of Organisational Culture.

So having said all that dear reader, I am sure you could identify a 9th thinking hat if you wish to. I suspect when you ‘put your thinking hat on’ you may find yourself using more than eight thinking styles while considering the possibilities.