What’s in it for you?
Have you ever been in a meeting or a brainstorming session where
- A solution was found and people just accepted it without discussing trade-offs or alternatives?
- Someone presented an idea but it was either criticized and shot down making them feel attacked, or wasn’t discussed enough, making them feel ignored?
- Someone came up with an idea and kept defending it even when people were pointing out the flaws?
- Someone felt uneasy expressing their emotions?
- The discussion turned into a debate among two people or two groups of people or even worse, 1 person vs the rest of the participants?
- Not all the participants felt heard?
If the answer to any of the questions above is a resounding yes, this topic will prove beneficial to you.
Perils of adversarial thinking
EBNE (Excellent But Not Enough)
“Adversarial thinking”, or what is most commonly known as a “Debate”, has a long and rich history and can be traced back to the philosophical and political debates of Ancient Greece or the philosophical and religious debates documented as Shastrartha of Ancient India.
I’m sure human beings have been debating far longer than that. Still, here I’m talking about the formal process of having discourse and discussions, perhaps with the involvement of a moderator and even audiences.
In a debate, arguments are put forward for common opposing viewpoints. The emphasis is on logical consistency and factual accuracy. Sometimes, emotional appeal to an audience has to be considered as well. We are emotional beings after all.
Debate is an excellent tool for assessing arguments, distinguishing right from wrong, and finding the truth.
And the truth is excellent, but sometimes, not good enough.
Excellent, But Not Enough, or EBNE, as Edward de Bono calls it.
You see, sometimes, there’s plenty more to it than simply finding the truth. Our education system has trained us to find “the right answer”, which again is excellent, but not enough.
I’ll borrow an example from one of Edward De Bono’s speeches and, pardon me for paraphrasing, he mentions that the truth of a house is to shelter you and keep you safe from external elements. That’s what the walls and the roof and the door are for, right? But that’s not all that your house is. They have several amenities that add value.
Sometimes, The truth alone isn’t enough, we also need value. This is where the traditional mechanisms of thinking fall rather short.
You see, in adversarial thinking, we are involved so much in logic and facts that more often than not, there’s no room left for creativity.
Also, the truth can be tricky sometimes. Everyone is living in their own reality, which is manifested by their own experiences and their reaction to those experiences.
This means that when we make 2 people argue against each other, they are arguing “for” or “against” an element of their own reality, which may differ completely from that of their opponent.
There’s nothing wrong with people having different perceptions of a subject. To me, it is a beautiful thing. It means we live in a world with numerous possibilities.
However, when 2 people come together to discuss, ideally, they should leave the discussion with their own perception enriched by that of the other. But we all know how the majority of such discussions go. People often end up trying to advocate or impose their own reality on the other person, without being open-minded enough to listen to or accept others.
Then there’s the case of a perfect brainchild.
The perfect brainchild
As a kid, I read a story in Panchtantra. Panchtantra is kind of like an Indian Aesop’s fables. A collection of short stories with each having a lesson to be learned. The story goes something like this…
There once was an owl and an eagle. They were both really good friends with each other. Often they would meet at the hunting grounds and chat about their lives.
Once the owl had owlets or babies. The next day when he met the eagle, all he could talk about was how beautiful his babies were and how lucky he was to have them. He went on and on about their dreamy eyes and how they had silk for feathers and how perfectly symmetrical their features were. The eagle of course was very happy for the owl.
That evening, while hunting, the eagle saw an owl’s nest. It also had some owlets but these were certainly not his friends. They were very ugly and unkempt. So he thought to himself- “easy dinner” and gobbled them down only to find out later that those were indeed his friend’s babies.
Talk of a tragedy… Right?
The lesson is that it’s almost impossible to see the flaws in your baby. When it comes to your offspring, you are always looking at them from behind the rose-colored glasses… you made them after all. Oh so pristine, so pure, so perfect. How can there be a flaw?
The same is often true for your brainchild. A brainchild is an idea or a product of your creative effort. It’s like your brain baby. And you are immune from seeing the faults or limits of your brain baby. And when someone tells you your baby is ugly, it’s challenging to keep your cool, let alone agree with them.
This is why we have people take offense in a meeting where their ideas are criticized. They don’t want to hear it. Even if you have a mature participant who knows better than to take such criticisms personally, often their first response is to become defensive and shield their idea rather than joining the critic in acknowledging the flaws. Because in adversarial thinking, if they don’t agree with you, they are your adversary, right?
Remember the scenarios I mentioned at the top of this article, like turning a discussion into a debate, feeling attacked, or not discussing the trade-offs and alternatives? All of those have their roots in adversarial thinking.
And I hope that so far I was able to convince you that although this way of thinking may have its merits, it’s not GOOD ENOUGH.
So what’s the alternative?
Parallel thinking is a constructive alternative to adversarial thinking. The idea is really simple. Instead of arguing “for” or “against” a subject “against” your opponent, you argue both “for” and “against” the subject “with” your opponent.
So instead of thinking in one direction, you collaboratively think in several directions, in parallel.
Now the keywords here are “collaborative” and of course “parallel”.
Let’s dig in a little deeper.
When I say collaborative, it means all parties must think in all directions. You can’t be selective. So regardless of whether it’s your brainchild or not, you will have to join the critics in thinking about the possible flaws in your brain baby.
The same goes for the critics. They have to think of the possible benefits and beauty of your brain baby with you. Hence the collaboration.
And when I say parallel, it means that you think in several directions in parallel. Now it doesn’t have to be binary like in a debate where you are either in favor of or against a subject. There can be many facets or many tracks of thinking you can take. But the key is that each participant must take all tracks in parallel with the same openness, enthusiasm, and willingness to contribute.
At the Drop of a Hat
The concept of parallel thinking will become even more clear when we get into the practical method of applying it, called “six thinking hats”. Six thinking hats is explained in great detail in the book of the same name by Edward de Bono. Edward de Bono is famous as the originator of “Lateral Thinking” and six hats is more of a supplement or a practical framework for Parallel thinking which in turn is a further development of lateral thinking processes, but focuses more on exploration.
Each hat represents one track of thinking. The idea is that, in a meeting or a brainstorming session, all participants start by wearing the same colored hat. The order doesn’t matter as much. But once you wear a hat, you must exclusively think in the direction that hat is associated with. Once you have explored one direction, it’s time to put on a new hat and thus explore a new direction.
Let me give a quick introduction to the six hats.
White Hat (Facts)
White hat is all about information and facts. The facts you already know and the information you might need. It is usually worn at the beginning of the session. Once you wear this hat, you must focus objectively, directly, and exclusively on the information.
Red Hat (Emotions)
Red Hat legitimizes feelings and emotions as an important part of a discussion. As a developer, there have been plenty of times when I’ve had a gut feeling about something. Be it a design decision or a line of code. This gut feeling, or “spidey sense”, is usually connected to an experience in the past and shouldn’t be ignored, but the connection isn’t always immediately apparent. In most discussions, there’s no place for mentioning such “unjustifiable” emotions.
Not with the Red Hat. It allows you to express your emotions without the need to justify or explain them.
Black Hat (Judgments)
Black Hat invites you to be cautious. It’s the hat of survival. It deals with judgments and concerns. You think of things that must be avoided or the things that might not work.
It’s important to remember that with this hat, it’s not enough to simply mention your concern. Unlike Red Hat, you must justify your concerns.
Yellow Hat (Benefits)
Once you wear the yellow hat, it’s all sunshine and rainbows. This hat invites you to think positively and focus on the benefits. You play the role of an optimist and highlight only the pros of what is being discussed.
Green Hat (Ideas)
The green hat is an energy hat. It lets you put new ideas forward. Wearing this hat, you think of possibilities.
Blue Hat (Planning)
The blue hat is a bit of a miscellaneous hat. It’s thinking about thinking. It’s worn towards the beginning and the end of a session and usually by just one person. You can think of this person as the facilitator of the session.
The wearer of this hat is responsible for the agenda during the session and to summarize and conclude towards the end of this session.
That’s it. Six hats. Six parallel tracks for thinking.
How to use it?
In this section, I will outline three distinct approaches to utilizing the six thinking hats.
- The first method involves implementing the main procedure in a group setting where all participants are familiar with the six thinking hats.
- The second approach is a modified version of the aforementioned procedure, designed to facilitate collaboration with individuals who may not be well-versed in the specifics of the six thinking hats.
- Lastly, I will describe a practical method for applying the same framework on an individual basis.
Here’s how you can apply the six thinking hats method when you are collaborating with others.
- Designate one person as the facilitator (wearing the hypothetical blue hat), responsible for overseeing the meeting or session.
- The facilitator initiates the session by instructing all participants to put on the same colored hat.
- Each individual adopts the thinking style associated with their respective hat color and expresses their thoughts accordingly.
- The facilitator periodically switches the hats to shift the thinking approach throughout the session.
- The sequence of hat colors is not crucial, but I recommend the following order: ⬜ white, 🟥 red, ⬛ black, 🟨 yellow, 🟩 green. This arrangement facilitates a logical flow of thinking, where each hat builds upon the previous one. Beginning with gathering facts (white hat), moving to explore emotions (red hat), engaging in critical thinking (black hat), generating positive ideas (yellow hat), and fostering creativity (green hat). This sequential approach ensures a comprehensive exploration of different perspectives, with each hat laying a foundation for the next.
- It is essential for everyone to actively participate in all thinking tracks.
- Once all the different thinking tracks have been explored, the facilitator summarizes the discussions and concludes the meeting, or arranges a follow-up session if necessary.
The Invisible Hat
While it’s ideal for every participant to be trained in the six thinking hats approach, it’s not mandatory. As long as YOU are familiar with it, you can wear what I call an invisible blue hat and be the unspoken facilitator. There is no need to delve into the details of the six thinking hats method or explicitly mention it. Instead, you can invite all participants to collectively focus their thoughts in a particular direction and periodically change that direction. You can start by saying “Let’s all take some time to think of the benefits of this idea/approach” and make sure no one wanders away from the current track. Participants only need to understand the intended direction of thinking at any given moment, without requiring knowledge of all the hat details. This approach proves useful when time is limited and you wish to avoid extensive introduction and onboarding. Depending on the time constraints and topic at hand, you can also choose to skip certain hats or introduce new ones.
The six thinking hats method is not only useful for collaborating with others, but it is also valuable for individual brainstorming. It provides a framework to ensure you approach a topic from multiple perspectives and encourages thinking in different tracks to gain deeper insights. Here, I am providing a simple template for you to utilize. The concept is straightforward. When you want to engage in thoughtful consideration, print out this single-page template. Begin by wearing the blue hat and writing down the subject you wish to contemplate, as well as the time you want to allocate to each hat. Then, proceed sequentially through each hat listed below the blue one, recording your thoughts from the viewpoint dictated by the current hat. Finally, conclude by donning the blue hat once more to summarize your findings and derive actionable insights.
How does it help?
- Helps separate emotions from logic.
By giving a separate and equally important place to both emotions and logic, it helps separate them so your logic isn’t muddled by your emotions and your emotion isn’t suppressed by your logic.
- Leaves room for creativity.
It isn’t a plain pursuit of truth and there’s no penalty for straying from the facts to think out of the box and be more creative.
- Embraces both positive and negative.
It embraces both positive and negative, helping you put away your rose-colored glasses or the spear of judgment.
- Fully explores a subject.
It helps you fully explore a subject with the help of parallel thinking tracks
- Everyone is heard.
It allows for the simultaneous exploration of multiple perspectives, with the facilitator actively ensuring everyone’s participation. This inclusive approach creates an environment where everyone has the opportunity to contribute and be heard. By doing so, it prevents the dominance of the loudest opinion or a single perspective.
- Not about arguing but exploring.
It puts people on the same side. There’s no opponent and no one has to argue as everyone is wearing the same hat. In this way, it fosters a sense of unity and encourages everyone to contribute without the constraints of conflicting viewpoints.
- Provides directions for structured thinking.
Without the method in the back of your head, you might unintentionally skip some thinking tracks. For example, you might consider the pros and cons but skip emotions and ideas. Which means, losing out on some valuable insights. Six Hats provide you with directions for structured thinking.
The Bottom Line
- How some things can be excellent but not enough.
- How adversarial thinking can crucify creativity at the altar of truth.
- How you are immune from seeing the flaws of your brainchild and
- How you can adopt parallel thinking to cover different perspectives and gather deeper insights.
We also discussed the practical framework to employ parallel thinking, both individually and collaboratively.
In the end, let me leave you with a quote by Edward de Bono
We may have a perfectly adequate way of doing something, but that does not mean there cannot be a better way.