The Product. The Whole Product. And Nothing But the Whole Product.

Six Thinking Hats

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Casually, I asked my 10 year old how his day had gone at school. He seemed to be anticipating this question and eagerly told me that he had learnt about Six Thinking Hats. He explained to me that this was a way of thinking pioneered by Edward deBono. There were six hats, each of a different color, that you were supposed to imagine wearing, and then think along that direction.


White Hat Thinking Focuses on data, facts, information known or needed. The value of the information would fall along the spectrum of relevance and accuracy.

Black Hat Thinking Focuses on difficulties, challenges, potential problems, why something may not work.

Red Hat Thinking Focuses on feelings, emotions, intuition, gut instincts.

Green Hat Thinking Focuses on creativity, innovation, alternative solutions, new ideas.

Yellow Hat Thinking Focuses on values and  benefits, and why something may work.

Blue Hat Thinking Focuses on managing the thinking process, with next steps, actions and plans.

My son’s class applied this framework to the television, and each group had to “wear” a colored hat and represent that line of thinking to the whole class.

I started thinking about how this could be applied in business and technology. So my son and I decided to do a short exercise together and used the smartphone as an example. We imagined the smartphone market prior to the release of the iPhone. Could this type of thinking process lead to a radically better smartphone, one without a keyboard? There is a huge dose of hindsight bias in my example, but play along. We did this without too much research on market size, market share, etc., but mostly as a meta thinking exercise.

White Hat Thinking (data, facts, known or needed information) OR Market Research 

1. A lot of people use smartphones, but primarily in businesses.

2. Smartphones are more than just a phone for talking. They have full keyboards. People use them for emails, and for surfing the Internet.

Black Hat Thinking (difficulties, potential problems) OR Market/Technology Constraints

1. A smartphone without a physical keyboard might be difficult to use.

Red Hat Thinking (feelings, emotions) OR Customer Problems/Pain/Wish

1. I don’t like how bulky existing smartphones are!

2. The size of the screen on existing smartphones is really small and it is frustrating to read long emails because of having to scroll a lot.

3. A smartphone with no bulky keyboard would be soooo cool!

Green Hat Thinking (new ideas, innovation, alternatives) OR Blue Ocean Product/Technology

1. The keyboard would be built into the software and would appear magically when necessary. This way there would be absolutely no buttons necessary except for volume control and to put the phone to sleep.

2. In the absence of a physical keyboard, the software keyboard would have to be used by merely touching the screen.

3. Just flicking a finger across the screen would be a fascinating way to scroll up or down.

4. There would be built-in apps for contacts, calendars, email, music, photos.

5. An intelligent phone operating system would allow us and others to build more applications for the phone down the road, making it a platform.

At this point, one could go back to Black Hat Thinking and come up with some devil’s advocate scenarios:

1. This might not work if it ends up draining the battery too much.

2. A capacitive glass touch screen might make the phone too expensive to manufacture.

3. An intelligent phone operating system might increase the size of flash memory required, again pushing up costs.

4. Some people have fat fingers and they may not be able to type very well on the on-screen keyboard.

5. People are just used to typing on physical keyboards and they might not get used to the on-screen keyboard.

6. When people hold the phone to their ears, there might be spurious input to the touch screen.

Followed by some more Green Hat Thinking:

1. The touch screen would have a proximity sensor so that it would turn off to avoid spurious input.

Yellow Hat Thinking (values, benefits) OR Value Proposition

1. A smartphone like this would be so much easier to use than existing smartphones.

2. A smartphone like this would be more fun to own than existing smartphones, including for non-business users.

Blue Hat Thinking (next steps, actions) 

1. Next step: Someone needs to do a quick prototype of the intelligent phone operating system and see how the touch screen and scrolling work intuitively.

2. Oh, and lets call it the iPhone 🙂

Well, we don’t know if Steve and his crew used this kind of lateral thinking amongst a small secretive group, but it seems like this would be a valuable framework for product managers and engineers to leverage when thinking of products. Just by some real time thinking on our feet, I felt my son and I went through a valuable exercise. Has anyone in the community used this technique? I would love to know. Feel free to comment with your thoughts and/or your experience. Next on my reading list is Six Thinking Hats.

Written by Rahul Abhyankar

Jan 31, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Posted in Product Management

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