Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':
Does this Hat Look Good on Me?
How to Perfectly Accessorize Your Project Management Head

Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats are, in my opinion, the most practical headgear for the fashion-conscious project leader. De Bono was intensely frustrated with the whack-a-mole approach to creative thinking and problem solving. He created this straightforward and elegant tool to encourage a more disciplined and repeatable method of generating results. His technique uses Six HatsTM: white, blue, green, yellow, red and black. Metaphorically speaking, wearing each hat reminds the thinker to adopt a different point of view, a refreshing change of pace from the monotonic personal biases that sometimes color human thinking. This enables him or her to view a situation from a variety of perspectives before choosing an option or deciding on a course of action.

The Haberdashers of the Project World

Project leaders already wear so many different hats that we could be the haberdashers of the project management world. So it's understandable that you may be wondering whether we really need six more. We lead, we manage. Sometimes we're coaches, sometimes cheerleaders, and occasionally heavy-handed policemen. We schedule, we budget. We worry about risks when the execs are still wondering what could possibly go wrong, and we see opportunity and possibility when most reasonable people assume that only certain failure lurks ahead. Sometimes we even find ourselves filling in for missing team members. (Has anyone ever had the pleasure of leading a fully staffed project?) Lately, however, I've run into a couple of situations where I've found inexperienced project managers wearing only one hat: the "I'm swamped and don't have time to lead" hat.

Some projects certainly do put people under enough pressure to turn carbon into diamond, but inexperienced project managers tend to focus too much on urgent day-to-day tasks while more pressing responsibilities languish. Even experienced project leaders can descend into survival mode now and then. It's something akin to driving 150 kilometers per hour while staring at the windshield wipers. In the worst situations, I've discovered so-called leaders spending the bulk of their time sending and reviewing email while their bewildered team gropes their way toward a fuzzy finish line or sinks into the icy couch of despair.

The Six HatsTM can serve as a reminder of the various perspectives required to lead a team effectively, and can also pry the rest of the team loose from the tunnel vision of personal bias. In a sea of calm this is a "nice to have" tool, but amidst the challenging circumstances that characterize many projects it's an absolute must. Here's what the hats mean in de Bono's model, and where they come in mighty handy in a typical project.

Before the Project – Wear the White Hat

The White Hat is the one that super-analytical people love because it stands for information. "Get me more data!" is the cry of those wearing the White Hat. Wouldn't it be nice if projects were started based on a clear understanding of customer needs and a keen awareness of the competition, with an eye on market trends? Surprisingly, many projects start much more haphazardly. Sometimes they are a gleam in a sales guy's eye, tailored to a customer who is not particularly representative of any sizeable future market opportunity. Or it may begin as a case of "founderitis," when a highly influential executive plops a big old hairy project down and no one has the guts to kill it before it grows into The Thing That Wouldn't Die. Frequently, projects don't even have a clean start—they just emerge somewhere in the planning phase. But I'd still reach for the white hat to at least have some idea of why the project makes good business sense. The brilliant and the lucky can rely on intuitive stokes of pure genius, but most businesses ought to have a more substantive reason to spend months and millions on a project. While there is a risk of analysis paralysis with this noggin topper, the White Hat can be a gentle reminder to build a business case based on facts and information.

During Project Definition – Sport the Green and Yellow Hats

The Green Hat and the Yellow Hat are my favorites. The Green Hat focuses on creativity, possibilities, alternatives and new ideas. It is the hat that asks the paradigm-shifting question "What seems impossible today, but if it were possible would transform our business for the better?" It's the hat that keeps ideas on life support long enough to have a fighting chance of surviving on their own merits against the Black Hat hordes. (More on this hat in a moment, but you can guess what this one stands for, right?). The Green Hat is the one that reminds us that every new idea was at some point labeled unrealistic or even impossible. It's the innovators hat. It takes courage and conviction to wear this one because—at least initially—people who live in the perpetual "How?" will think that you are setting everyone up for certain failure.

The Yellow Hat is the cousin to the Green Hat, and the one that I intentionally whip out when I want to successfully attack something that seems highly unlikely or darn near impossible, whether at the start of a project, or at the approach of some seemingly ill-fated milestone. It is the hat of optimism and positive thinking. Devil's advocates and certifiable pessimists masquerading as realists may set off a stampede of negativity in response to the Yellow Hat. Perhaps they dread disappointment, or maybe it's just a lot easier to shoot holes in ideas than to birth them. You'd better have a chin strap on the Yellow Hat because there is powerful temptation to join the pessimists. After all, negative people do appear smarter. And, as Ben Franklin pointed out, if you are enough of a pessimist you will be continually delighted.

For Thorough Risk Assessment and Mitigation – Don the Black Hat

The Black Hat is one of the most overused by those who dread failure as well as those hoping to avoid doing pretty much anything at all. It's the hat of judgment, criticism, and negative thinking. As much as I despise a relentless Black Hat perspective, I'm a big believer in the power of negative thinking. The perspective of doom and gloom serves a useful purpose in that it allows us to anticipate and avoid disaster, thus the Black Hat is a fabulous tool for surfacing project risks. I'm not just talking about factual risks, like a schedule crunch or the absence of a critical resource. I'm also referring to the hazards of unresolved conflict and lack of buy-in from the team or other key stakeholders. It's natural that people have concerns about potential failure in projects, especially when it directly reflects on their performance and impacts their future success. There is always plenty of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) floating around in the heads of team members, so project leaders might as well get it out in the open where they can form the backbone of the project's risk management strategy

To Build Passionate Commitment to the Project – Give the Red Hat a Whirl

Although some people would prefer to keep things "rational," I think the Red Hat is a pretty cool tool and has an important place in our PM wardrobe. This is the hat of emotion and intuition. People's feelings, including "gut feel," get an airing when wearing this cap, and no justification of the feeling is required. After reading The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders, it's clear to me that most of the time when we are explaining ourselves it is just a grand rationalization anyway. And Malcom Gladwell's Blink is a well-known expose of the power and pitfalls of intuition. Consider clutching a copy of one of these books in each hand while wearing the Red Hat.

Disciplined People, Thinking and Acting With Discipline – Wear the Blue Hat

Luck and "doing our best" delivers about a 40% success rate, but a systematic project management approach nearly doubles your chances of success. (Ref: William E. Souder) The problem is that most people can't consistently cross the chasm between knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it. The Blue Hat represents the overall approach to thinking and the output of results. It is the hat that reminds project managers to actually do what they know, not just occasionally, and not only when there's time, but every day on every project. I can't tell you how weary I am of grown men and women claiming to have little or no control over what they do in their jobs. Please, people, grow a backbone or I'm going to lose my funny bone! There's no excuse for a highly trained and skilled project manager choosing to spend the bulk of the day checking email and lighting one's hair on fire now and then. (An article in the February 2007 issue of PM Network stated that the top performing—and best paid—project managers spend fully twice as much time on planning as their peers.) Project leadership requires constant vigilance, and the Blue Hat is that friendly reminder to do what is known to deliver the goods. Sometimes you'll be praised for it, sometimes reviled. Professional project managers follow known best practices whether they feel like it or not, whether they're rewarded or not, whether the team wants to have that kind of discipline or not. This is the hat that makes it possible for you to be a menace to mediocrity again and again.

Gee, Do I Really Need the Hats?

I'm pretty sure that de Bono meant his Six Thinking Hats as a metaphor, but I did actually dye six hats in the various colors and put them on one by one to see if wearing them made a difference. I think it's safe to say that wearing the hats isn't an absolute must, but spreading a set of colored hats across the table at a team meeting or adding them to a project's latest PowerPoint presentation is a handy reminder to think outside of the bun. (Sorry, I've been in Japan for 2 weeks and have Taco Bell on my mind.)

When All Else Fails – Try the 6 Emotional Basket Case Hats

While the Six Hats tool works astonishingly well as designed, the intensity and mood swings of a recent project led me to contrive an alternative version for dealing with the human aspects of project teams.

The Yellow-Belly Hat – This is the hat of cowardice, the hat to wear when you want to avoid dealing with an unpleasant situation or having a difficult conversation with a team member who is bugging the stuffing out of you.

The Green With Jealousy Hat – This hat comes in handy when someone you thought was a total loser gets credit for your work, and you really don't feel like offering your heartfelt congratulations. It's also handy when friends and colleagues whom you'd always assumed would remain in your shadow exceed your own dismal success.

The Red with Rage Hat – Very handy when the blood rushes from your brain to your appendages, leaving little or no capacity for rational thinking or behavior. This is the hat to wear when you are going to say something that you are sure to regret a nanosecond or two later. Also quite useful when you are writing a nasty email or spouting off to your executive review team. It's pretty handy while driving, too.

The "But My Intention Was Pure" White Hat – Usually a good follow up to any of the distasteful behaviors brought about by the Red, Yellow or Green Hats, above. Seriously, though, impact and intention are two different things. Good intentions don't remove responsibility for our impact on others. The temptation to hide out in intention is incredibly strong, but focusing on impact is far more effective. "I see that in spite of my good intentions I have created a negative impact on you and I am truly sorry," will be better received than, "Don't take it personally," or "You're overreacting."

The Black Night of the Soul Hat – Comes in handy when the fate of the project is hanging by a thread and pretty much everyone seems to be running around with scissors. Also useful when you start to wonder, "Does the world really need another (hardware/software/IT) blah, blah?" (Usually quickly followed by questions like "What does it all mean?" and "Are we really just blobs of protoplasm clinging to a rock hurtling through space?")

The Got-the-Blues Hat – For those depressing moments when it becomes clear that the project is a complete failure and all was for naught. Also handy for moments when it seems that we truly are just blobs of protoplasm clinging to a rock hurtling through space.

Oh, and I would be remiss if I left out one very important hat de Bono forgot – the Brown Hat. I'm sure I don't need to explain this one, but it comes in especially handy during discussions of project schedule.

You Can't Lead If No One Follows

Whether you choose to use only the original de Bono hats, or augment them with my more colorful version, I think that you'll find the quality of thinking in your team rising as a result. Today's projects are demanding and the pace is sometime grueling. People need help thinking clearly in such circumstances. We can't do the project alone. We must enable our team to perform at their very best, and the hats are an effective way to enhance the quality of thinking of our project teams.

You can't lead your team if you don't have their attention. Don't just drone on about what needs to be done; try to be creative and interesting while leading. De Bono's hats are a fashionable accessory for the savvy project leader. They are a handy reminder to use what most people would consider common sense. Tossing six colored hats on the table at the start of each team meeting will remind the team to make it common practice.

Remember, the only thing that separates us from the lower beasts is our ability to accessorize. Don't be caught without the proper chapeau.

Find out more about Edward de Bono's Six HatsTM, and what else he thinks about thinking, at

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