Let Me Put On My New Hat

Being forced to step outside your comfort zone and take on a new perspective can help you think about something in a new way.  This isn't particularly earth-shattering news, of course, but there is an easy way to foster this kind of thinking and get staff to take a new stance.

Often, it seems like the same people in an organization consistently take on the same role; perhaps the COO’s practicality and financial mindset mean she is always concerned about funding and tends to nix ideas early on, while the Director of Strategy’s optimism translates to seeing a lot of potential in every new program idea. We all fall into patterns like this, where every new idea seems infeasible (or wonderful) and we can’t help but play devil’s advocate (or cheerleader) at every meeting.

To keep conversations fresh and staff engaged, it can be helpful to take on new roles. In Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, he suggests ways to provide different perspectives on a challenging topic. By assigning each person at a meeting (or each phase of a meeting) a different “hat”, it is possible to ensure deliberate discussion around the challenge – and how people are reacting emotionally, objectively, critically, or in other ways. Each hat has a different set of guiding questions to consider, from what information do we have or need, to how do I feel about this idea, and what could go wrong?

Based on these Six Hats, we recently facilitated a client meeting with our own adapted set of seven hats: the Analyst, Opposer, Advocate, Feeler, Connector, Questioner and Joker. Every attendee was assigned a role – and many were deliberately given roles outside their comfort zone. For example, the CEO, who admits she is often critical of new ideas, assigned herself as Advocate so she would be sure to focus on the positive side of things. We gave each attendee a little sign on a popsicle stick, with their role on one side and the questions for them to consider on the other, to continually prompt them and guide their thinking. Holding a physical sign also served as a safety blanket, allowing people to justify viewpoints that may have been out of character for them.

At the start of the meeting, some comments felt a bit canned as people tried to embody their roles (“This idea feels great”, “We don’t have the money!”), but soon, conversation became richer as attendees became comfortable with their hats. Additionally, while some people might have deferred to more senior staff at a typical meeting, the hats allowed everyone to take on a new voice and personality. There was no need to feel nervous about being critical (in the role of Analyst or Opposer), or to feel judged for supporting something simply because it felt right (as a Feeler). Ultimately, people moved around, in and out of their hats, and there was meaningful conversation with a balance of critical and positive feedback.

If you’re looking to shake up a meeting or make it more fun, try assigning your own hats to help foster interesting and creative conversation. Here are ours:

  • Analyst: Is this feasible? What does our data tell us about this idea? What does logical reasoning tell us?
  • Opposer: Why would this not work? What is wrong with this idea? What have we not considered?
  • Advocate: Why is this a good idea? How could this work?
  • Feeler: How does this idea feel? What is my gut reaction? How would it feel to our staff, Board, funders…?
  • Connector: How might these different ideas connect? Where are the places of consensus in our discussion? Where do we seem to be converging?
  • Questioner: What questions does this raise for me? What should we be asking ourselves?
  • Joker: How can humor be used to illustrate my thoughts? Can humor or sarcasm be useful to help evaluate these ideas?