The expression refers to the situation when we leave aside for a moment our own perception of reality, the rules we built and know for making decisions, our own style to interpret the facts. The objective is to identify new solutions to the unsolved problems, to approach the situations from a different angle in order to obtain better results. The changes in the inner self may appear only if we agree with the new perspectives and if we resonate with them (thus we accept them and integrate them in our reality).
Still, to exercise thinking “outside the box” does not imply to change ourselves for good, but only to identify new perspectives and see if we feel comfortable to choose one of them to solve our problem.
One of the axioms of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) says that “the map is not the territory”. The territory is the surrounding reality, everything outside us. We perceive it according to our senses, we “see” it depending on our beliefs, and we filter it as we learned. Thus we build a map of the reality, developing our own representation / box of it. This is the reason why there can be many maps for the same reality, as many as the “eyes” that see it. It is self-explanatory that detaching from our map is a process that can seem too difficult in the beginning.
There are many ways to exercise thinking “outside the box”.
“Six thinking hats” is one of them. The method was developed by Eduard de Bono and can be applied in various situations. Each hat has a specific role, offering different information on and perceptions of the same situation. The hats represent the different angles that a situation can be viewed from:
1. White hat = objective facts & figures. Offers neutral, objective information – without feelings & impressions. Investigates what we know, what we don’t know, what we need to know, with no interpretation attached.
2. Yellow hat = hope, positive & speculative information. Uses positive direction of thinking, shows optimism upon ideas, searches for opportunities, identifies the benefits, proposes best-case scenarios, explores of new shiny horizons
3. Black hat = cautious & careful. Offers negative logic – why it won’t work, uses critical judgment, pessimistic view – while remaining logical & truthful, but not necessarily fair, focuses on errors, evidence, conclusions, searches for cautions & careful solutions
4. Red hat = emotions & feelings. Describes own perceptions & how the others would feel / perceive the solution, uses emotions & feelings to argument. Bases the promoted solutions on hunches, intuitions, impressions – doesn’t have to be logical or consistent and with no need for justifications, reasons or basis
5. Green hat = creativity, ideas & lateral thinking. Develops new ideas from previous ones, suggests alternatives for arguments presented by black hats. Proposes new approaches to problems, no matter how creative they are
6. Blue hat = control & organization of thinking. Defines & clarifies the situation to be investigated, controls the other hats during the process – facilitates the discussion, points out the rules. Focuses on discipline and objectives – sets the sequence of the hats, the timing. Begins & ends the session – summing up the conclusions.
The method can be used both individually and in groups.
Individually, we can note in different columns the arguments offered by each hat. After a break (to let the mind to get some distance), we analyze what we noted and decide if any of the solutions can work for us.
In groups, each person assumes the role of one hat, offering suggestions only from that perspective. The facilitator notes down all ideas. In the end, all will debate upon ideas, agreeing together if they adopt or not any of the solutions.
It’s not mandatory for all the hats / roles to be used in one exercise. You can use only a part of them, depending on the situation, the abilities and dispositions of the ones involved.
Some roles will seem easy to play, as they are close to our own style, while others are more difficult, as they oppose our usual way of functioning. The best way to exercise is to play first the easy roles and then assume more and more difficult roles. We will accommodate them gradually and it will be easier to use them in the future, in other situations.
We can apply the method is various contexts: at work, in our personal life, when we need to make a complex decision, when we are confused or feeling overwhelmed and we need to, at least, understand the situation better, to understand others better and their way of acting, to accept some situations, when we are caught in obsessive thoughts and we can’t stop them and so on.
I will take a situation to exemplify the method: we hear informally that there will be big changes at work. Many rumors fly around and official information is vague and almost absent. What do we do? Usually, such a situation generates anxiety and tensions. As time goes by and the management does not clarify anything, we become more and more obsessive, tense, unproductive and our overall state of being is worsening. The self-analysis can have the following path:
1. White hat: what do I know for sure? What is my performance during the previous year? What are my skills? What my direct manager told me? What questions do I have for my manager? What is the planning on the project I’m working on?
2. Yellow hat: why am I demotivated this period and what I would like to be different? How can any change help me? What I would like to learn in the future? Am I bored with the current situation, even if I feel comfortable? What changes would I make if I were to be in top management?
3. Black hat: what if I get fired, even if I’ve performed very well? What if I will have a future manager that I will hate? What aspects do I love in the current situation and would like to keep? What is the worst thing that can happen?
4. Red hat: how do I feel now? My manager told me something yesterday, what did he mean? What does my intuition say?
5. Green hat: what if I resign and I’ll go travelling for 3 months? What if I already have to be moved to that team I like? What if I will ask that project I wanted to be involved in? What if I will attend that class I wanted 6 months ago?
6. Blue hat: will be the last hat to use, after answering the above questions. In this role, you can organize the most comfortable action steps. It is not mandatory to take the final decision after the first analyses, but to get closer in having the big picture.