Tip Your Hat to Your Team

Tina Seelig, Stanford University April 4, 2019

In the newest LEAP! episode, “Hire Values: It Takes All Kinds,” we discuss how to create and work with diverse teams. My guests are Stanford alumni, Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana and Elizabeth Weil, managing partner at 137 Ventures. They both have lots of experience working with diverse groups at Google, Facebook, Asana (Justin); and Twitter and Andreessen Horowitz (Elizabeth). During our discussion we talk about Edward De Bono’s Six Hats model, which is designed to help teams uncover each person’s dominant working style. Below is more information about how I use this framework in my classes to foster team collaboration and problem solving.

De Bono’s Six Hats framework describes six different roles we play on teams and shows the benefits of each role. Most people have one dominant hat color, with one or two other colors close behind.

  • Those who focus on facts wear the white hat.
  • Those who focus on process wear the blue hat.
  • Those who lead with creativity wear the green hat.
  • Those who rely heavily on their intuition wear the red hat.
  • Those who see where things might go wrong wear the black hat.
  • Those who focus on getting everyone to get along wear the yellow hat.

Practice: What hat colors do you wear? Is there a dominant color? Which colors are close behind? Are there hat colors that are particularly uncomfortable for you? Are there hat colors that you need someone else on your team to wear?

To demonstrate the value of this model, I ask students in my classes to take a short “test” to determine their dominant working style. Even without the test, most people know what hat colors they typically wear. Students come to class wearing a shirt that matches their respective hat color so that they can easily see that they collectively represent the entire spectrum of working styles. I then put the students on teams of six, with others with different dominant working styles.

Each student is given a real hat with six detachable tassels, one for each of the different colors. Over the two-hour class, each student attaches different tassels to the top of their hat to represent the role they are currently playing.

The teams are given a challenging task to tackle, and each person gets a chance to try out playing different roles as they discuss possible solutions. We start with everyone wearing the same hat color, beginning with white, then green, then blue, and so on. Later in the session, the students are allowed to change hat colors at will, experimenting with those that feel most comfortable and those that feel awkward to them. They gain a shared vocabulary about the roles they play on teams, and realize that they can change those roles as easily as changing tassels on their hat.

They also realize that there is an optimal order for the hats depending on the task at hand. For example, in our creativity class they preferred the following process:

    1. Start with white hats to unpack all they know about a topic.
    2. Switch to red hats to uncover how they feel about the problem.
    3. Put on green hats to generate solutions.
    4. Don black hats to consider where things might go wrong.
    5. Switch to yellow hats to get an optimistic perspective on the solutions.
    6. Use their blue hats to plan what they will do next.

For example, if the problem is saving water during a drought:

The WHITE hat will result in facts regarding how much water each person consumes a day and how much water is used to irrigate crops.

The RED hat will yield inputs such as how it feels to see neighbors water lawns in midday and how scary it is to consider running out of water.

The GREEN hat unlocks solutions, including funny public service campaigns and incentives for saving water.

The BLACK hat uncovers problems with enforcing water consumption limits.

The YELLOW hat provides a positive outlook, seeing the problems as opportunities.

And the BLUE hat results in an actionable plan for moving forward with the selected solutions.

It is important to explicitly state at the beginning of a brainstorming session which hats will be worn, and when. For example, this is helpful to those who are most comfortable evaluating and executing on ideas after they are generated. They know they will be invited to put on black and blue hats later in the process to evaluate ideas and then plan the next steps, respectively.

Practice: Practice running thru the above order THEN, re-order to see what is most effective for your type of work.

I wish I had been introduced to this tool early in my life, because I often fell into the trap of thinking that everyone sees the world as I do. It was always surprising and often frustrating to work with others who approach problems from a very different point of view and with a very different process. I didn’t understand their perspective and felt as though they didn’t understand me. I almost always wear a green hat, with both blue and yellow close behind. As a result, I have had to learn how to work with others who naturally wear a black or a red hat, which are the least comfortable for me, and to don those hats when appropriate. Also, knowing which color hat each person on my team naturally wears, I have a better understanding of why they act as they do and I can respond more appropriately.

I have been using the Six Hats model for many years and have seen over time that students and practitioners in different disciplines tend to wear characteristic hat colors. It might be that individuals are drawn to fields where their approach is most valued or that each discipline reinforces a specific working style. For example, the students studying electrical engineering tend to wear white hats and are, therefore, well tuned to manipulating lots of data. In the business school, a majority of students wear blue hats and are very comfortable managing projects and processes. And in the drama and literature departments there is a preponderance of red hats, where students are comfortable drawing upon their feelings as they create new art. This is another reason it is fruitful to bring together people from diverse disciplines to generate ideas. They bring not only different knowledge, but also different approaches and working styles.

Teamwork is incredibly important when you are building organizations that are tackling thorny problems. You need a group composed of individuals who bring different perspectives to the table, who respect different working styles, and can tap into the value that each one brings.

Practice: Share the De Bono Six Hats model with your friends and colleagues, and ask them what hat colors they wear. Have a discussion about the way they like to work, and how your hat colors can complement each other.

A portion of this blog post is taken from inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity by Tina Seelig.