One interesting way to run a meeting is to employ the Six Thinking Hats methodology, a system created by Edward de Bono for guiding discussion. The basic idea is to distill thinking into six archetypes, each denoted by a colored hat:
- Process — blue (“what are we talking about?”)
- Facts — white (“what are we sure of?”)
- Emotion — red (“how do we feel about this?”)
- Optimism — yellow (“what are the best parts of this?”)
- Realism — black (“what won’t work?”)
- Creativity — green (“what else might we do?”)
Participants are asked to play one of each of the roles; participants can switch roles in a fixed order, at whim, or through some other mechanism. Some methods call on a subset of colors for a specific purpose (for example, the black and red hats might stay home during a brainstorming session), while others use the full complement.
The method is useful for two reasons. First, it forces participants to think in a way that may not come naturally to them. This helps folks grow their skills, and learn empathy for other perspectives. For example, if the eternal pessimist is put in the “managing” role, they may gain insight into when their pessimism is helpful vs. disruptive.
The second reason is that it gives permission to partake of some roles. Often in a meeting, everyone gets into agreeable groupthink, and you are right and I am right, and all are right as right can be! This is useful for group cohesion but not as useful for brainstorming or design iteration. Having a designated “red” person can be useful if the group is trying to avoid talking about feelings. Having a designated manager is useful if the group doesn’t want to admit it needs a facilitator to keep it on track.
However, the hat colors themselves are somewhat uncommunicative, relying on cultural assumptions about color that may not hold in a cross-culture team, or simply are hard to remember (was it yellow or blue for managing?).
Star Wars: the universal culture
Pop quiz: What’s the biggest active film franchise with a new movie coming out in 2017? (If you said “The Fast And The Furious”, you’re almost right, and please feel free to write that version of this article — it’d be fascinating.)
But, no, I’m talking about Star Wars. As a cross-culture touchstone, it’s nearly unparalleled, with fans all over the globe, and deep character recognition. So let’s map the six hats to our favorites from A New Hope and the rest of the original series.
Obi-Wan is my choice for the blue hat, “managing”. Though he exhibits plenty of other traits elsewhere in the movie series, in the first trilogy he is the one with the plan, who keeps everyone on track.
R2D2 and C3P0: Facts
R2D2 and C3P0, together and separately, never fail to tell it like it is. Both droids offer facts in the face of emotion, though, of course, both express emotion of their own. This makes them a decent choice for the White Hat, to represent the set of what we think is true.
Chewie was the easiest to categorize; though he possesses great technical knowledge, his role most often is to express the emotions that the others cannot. He gets the Red Hat, and the bearer can choose to express themselves in English or in Shyriiwook, as they choose.
Leia Organa: Realist
Leia’s the realist, whether in her role as Dr. Princess Organa, or later on as General. Time and again she gets everyone back on track with a check-in with reality. Resist the urge to make her Black Hat look like a pair of round hair buns.
Luke Skywalker: Optimist
Farmboy Luke is the eternal optimist; despite moments of soul-searching, deep despondency, and some early pouting, he bounces back by seeing the best in everyone, and bringing it out in them. Whether it’s Han, Leia, or Vader himself, Luke’s not willing to give up on someone just because of their outer grouchiness. This makes him a shoe-in for our Yellow Hat, adorned with the sands of his home planet.
Han Solo: Creator
This puts Han at the helm of creativity. He’s the one tasked to come up with a solution against insurmountable odds. (“Never tell me the odds.”) When one plan fails he falls back to another, cuts in auxiliary power, jettisons some escape pods, and smuggles himself in under the floorboards. Han gets the Green Hat.
He may not always be happy with having to do it, but he’s at his best when improvising, and he’s damn good at it.
This was a fun exercise. I don’t know if I’d use it in a work setting — maybe — but it definitely makes you think about what function people play in a group. Is Han always the creative person? Of course not. Doesn’t Threepio express emotions? Of course he does. And that’s part of the point: the hats are only archetypes, a purposely stereotyped perspective on character. But sometimes, that’s what it takes to bring a group together.
 My breakdown for F&TF: Dominic: Manager, Brian: Optimism, Letty: Emotion, Han: Realism, Roman: Creativity, Tej: Facts. What’s yours?