A Game of Hats


It's the end of the month, we've tasted 2016 and had plenty of time to decide whether we like it, or whether we're just going to politely push it around on our plate and make unconvincing "mmmm!" noises if people ask.

Today I'm going to talk about hats and working productively in a group. Close your eyes, and imagine the following scenario...



Your team is working on putting together a creative project. Everyone has a slightly different idea of what the goals are, and how you should go about it. The loudest people are pushing for their ideas, someone is doodling a fairly accurate reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and you know that you'll end up doing something safe and uninteresting because it's easier than getting people to agree.

How vexing are teams? I mean, people are great, but getting greatness out of a team is a challenge: as well as solving problems and making progress towards your goal, you've got to communicate well, be available and generally avoid making anyone feel terrible. You also have to judge the right time to encourage and persuade, and the right time to simply say, “this is what’s going to happen.”

Working on a creative problem is particularly tricky. Here’s one of life’s paradoxes: Creative people don’t always like structure, but structure can free them to be more creative.

So let's look at a structure. To do that, I'm going to casually mention that Edward de Bono is an eighty-something year old Maltese psychologist and creative thinking expert, who says quirky things like “a memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen”. His best known work is his Theory of the Six Hats.

What’s this Six Hats thing?

In a nutshell, the “six hats” idea is that there are six naturally occurring phases in idea development:

WHITE is for Data: Gather the necessary facts
RED is for Emotion: Listen to your feelings on the subject
GREEN is for Creativity: Come up with a new idea
YELLOW is for Positivity: Explore the happy consequences of your idea
BLACK is for Troubleshooting: Find problems and fixing them
BLUE is for Overview: Manage and facilitate this whole process

And furthermore, if you can get everybody on the same page at the same time, you won’t have people pulling in different directions.

A very specific and common example of people working at cross-purposes is when a new idea is proposed (GREEN HAT) and it is immediately attacked and destroyed (BLACK HAT). If the first thing you hear is always criticism, why would you suggest ideas in future? New ideas are like precious green seedlings, they need at least a little nurturing.

This doesn't mean that Black Hats aren't useful – they’re very useful – but if you’re a Black Hat it’s easy to drift away from the pleasing meadow of Troubleshooting to the craggy rocks of Criticism. A symptom of the latter is saying “that’s not going to work,” instead of “I see a problem with this aspect, but we could solve it by…” or “I see a problem with this aspect, does anyone have any ideas that would help fix that?”

In this first instance, the critic comes across as being against the idea, and therefore against progress. This makes people sad.
The second way around, the troubleshooter comes across as forward-thinking and a team player. There will be high-fives.

I'm already casually using phrases like “Black Hats” with you, to mean “people who tend towards identifying problems and thinking about ways to fix them”. But no-one should think they can only wear one hat. We all wear all the hats, just at different times.

If you can get a group to agree as to which phase you’re on, you can all work together instead of arguing. For example if you’re in the White Hat phase, you would define the problem, establish the parameters (budget, time frame, space, essential elements), work out the questions you must have the answers to, and set about getting that data.

You may not agree with the theory or the way it plays out, but it certainly gives us a way of describing behaviours that we all recognize. You may also find yourself saying “but I have a delightful and productive time with teamwork!” – I hope you do! - in which case, there’s no need for hats.


A few years ago I was asked to facilitate a workshop on creative game design at the Freeplay Independent Game Festival in Melbourne, along with Ben McKenzie, a fellow expert in games and stories. We based our session around the Six Hats model, by setting a creative challenge which we didn't have a solution to, and then stepping the group through games and exercises which got them to engage in the various hats. After all, people like to solve problems and they like to play games.

I was delighted at how whole-heartedly the participants through themselves into the workshop, and quite blown away by the results. The example question I set was “Come up with a new group game involving no props” and some of the ideas still have me itching to play again.*

* One of my favourite of the games that were invented that day involved landing a remote control plane in a target zone by everyone yelling instructions at it. Except that the plane was a person holding their arms out to the side, making bjjjjj noises. And there was an opposing team trying to race you to the goal with their own plane-human, and if they collide then you have to start over with new planes.

The important bit

Let me leave you with two questions to ponder:

What colored hat do I usually wear when working with other people?

Can I take it off?