One of our tasks as leaders in the workplace is to build innovation by thinking through future problems and opportunities.
While there are a variety of ways to innovate for the future, my preference is to involve many people to provide multiple perspectives on the problem, and generate unique solutions and approaches.
The challenge is that if we pull everyone together, and all are looking at the same issue from multiple perspectives, we can spend a lot of time arguing through specific ideas. The discussion also can end up being too removed from the problem or opportunity.
Some groups even revert to structures such as parliamentary procedure to lead a discussion, but that can burden creativity.
To harness the brainpower of a group, I like to use Edward DeBonos Six Thinking Hats. This is a structured way of having everyone on the team look at a problem at the same time while rotating through several points of view.
The idea is that the team looks at the opportunity from one point of view, and then moves through five other points of view. These are identified by colors to represent different ways of viewing issues.
Some teams even go so far as to literally wear hats of a particular color (thus the name of the approach) to help everyone remember to use a specific point of view. Even when everyone is looking at things from the same point of view, people see different things. Thus individual contributions are made while rotating through the colored hats.
The first color commonly used is the white hat, which focuses on data. This includes historical data, current data on hand and recognition of the data necessary to make better decisions.
Even if someone is not a data-driven decision maker, they can make unique contributions asking questions that underlie the basic assumptions of the data, such as: Why is this the best data to use for making the decision?
Next is the red hat, which is the emotional reaction. We can all think of those we work with who are emotional decision makers, but what is amazing is what comes out from those who usually do not share their emotions in making a decision.
It may turn out that there is a lot more commonality than folks realize, or that some folks have been hiding behind the data. This also helps people process through their feelings about a particular issue and allows the group to come to a greater commitment in the future when planning a course of action.
Third is the black hat, which focuses on all of the problems and potential negative outcomes of a decision, verging on the pessimist.
The positive is that if the team becomes the greatest critic, then any potential flaw can be identified and addressed before a problem or opportunity is publicly shared or implemented.
Fourth is the yellow optimistic hat, which is many times needed after the group has done some black-hat thinking.
This helps the team identify the upsides, potentials and benefits of the approach to the opportunity. It also helps the team achieve some comfort after a rough look at the issue.
The final perspective for the group is the green hat, where creativity is strongly encouraged. This can be akin to traditional brainstorming.
The key is that the prior four discussions will have helped the team address a lot of the constraints, boundaries and issues that usually inhibit success in a creative solutions discussion.
As the leader of the team, we generally need to keep on a blue hat that focuses on the process. As the facilitator of the discussion, we keep the group in the same hat of thinking. If it looks like we started in black but have moved a bit into yellow, we can guide the group to put on our yellow hats and we will return to black hats at a later time.
Our job is to keep the discussion going by having everyone in the group look at the opportunity from the same hat and not getting bogged down in personality conflicts that routinely bedevil group problem-solving.
There are a variety of ways to lead a team to innovative for the future. As business leaders, our challenge is to successfully lead them through that opportunity. This tool is one way to do that.
Matthew Liao-Troth is dean and professor at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.