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Mastering Your PhD: Strength in Numbers

Much of the time, especially after a string of long nights in the lab, you may feel as if you’re navigating the dark and stormy waters of research all alone, with a broken compass and no land in sight.

But help is at hand, and you don’t have to go it alone if you don’t want to. Take advantage of the experience and creativity of the others in your lab by asking them to try an experiment in parallel thinking.

At your next group meeting, present to your peers a problem you’ve been unable to solve by yourself and ask your lab mates to participate in a technique called the "Six Thinking Hats." Developed by psychologist and physician Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats will help you examine problems and decisions from several perspectives. Used properly, this tool will encourage you, and your lab mates, to operate outside your normal mode of thinking. Even better, it can help you, and those around you, understand the full complexity of a problem and spot issues and opportunities you might otherwise have failed to see. Better still, it can help you learn about how you think.

Jump-start your thinking

As a scientist, you probably approach problems from a rational point of view. If so, you probably fail to view a problem from an emotional, intuitive, or creative point of view.

Why is this a bad thing?

Purely rational thinking may lead to a failure to think creatively, consider negative outcomes, or plan how to proceed if the original strategy doesn’t work. Purely rational thinking also may keep you in the rut you're in, with a problem you can’t solve, not because it’s unsolvable, but because you haven’t been able to see it from a different perspective.

Each of the people you work with has a unique way of thinking. This can be the result of personality, habit, or both. Some may be optimists, always looking on the bright side of things, certain that every strategy they try will work ( What a fantastic idea! Let’s go for it!). Pessimists may be defensive and quick to point out the weaknesses and flaws of a plan ( It’s never going to work. Don’t even bother!). Those of a more emotional bent may fail to look at decisions in a dispassionate and rational way ( I hate that idea. Let’s try something else!).

If you examine a problem using the Six Thinking Hats technique, you can solve it by harnessing all these approaches and others, as well as your and your colleagues' personal tendencies, leading to a balanced and well-conceived strategy.

The technique in action

You can use the Six Thinking Hats technique on your own, but it might be more fun to try it out in a group meeting. The trick is to get everyone thinking with the same hat at the same time, then moving through the different hats together until the problem has been examined from a variety of sides.

But first, stop for a minute and think about a typical group meeting. It probably starts with someone presenting a research problem, then someone else chimes in with an idea for a solution. Someone else shoots it down, saying it will never work. Another group member comments that it’s the best idea they’ve heard in a long time. The discussion becomes adversarial and goes in circles, with no structured approach to solving the problem.

That’s where parallel thinking can help. Parallel thinking requires getting everyone using the same thinking tool at the same time. It's far more effective than arguing back and forth.

Six Thinking Hats is merely a convenient way of putting parallel thinking into practice. The hats and colors were designed to make the technique practical. Remember when your grade school teacher told you to put on your thinking cap? Now you can say to people: Let’s all put on the yellow hat and see if we can find some benefits to this idea. Each thinking hat represents a different style of thinking.

  • The White Hat: The white hat is concerned with facts and figures. With the white hat you focus on the available information. Look at the information you have and see what you can learn from it. While wearing this hat, try to obtain a good picture of the knowledge available to you.

  • The Red Hat: Red-hat thinking is all about emotion. While wearing the red hat, you look at problems using intuition, gut reaction, and emotion (For example: ‘I hate that idea’ or ‘I would love to try this’).

  • The Black Hat: Black-hat thinking is cautious, faultfinding, and defensive. This type of thinking is important because it highlights the weak points in a plan so that you can eliminate them, modify them, or prepare a Plan B.

The black hat will make your plans more resistant to failure. It can also help you spot flaws and risks before you choose a course of action. Black-hat thinking helps to counterbalance overly optimistic thinkers and those who leap ahead without considering drawbacks.

  • Yellow Hat: The yellow hat is like sunshine: it helps you think positively. Yellow-hat thinking allows you to see all the benefits of a decision and the value in it. Furthermore, yellow-hat thinking can help you keep going when the going gets tough.

  • Green Hat: The green hat represents creativity. This is the type of thinking at work during a successful brainstorming session. Green-hat thinking helps you develop creative solutions to a problem. Green-hat thinking is freewheeling; anything goes, no matter how outlandish, when you’re wearing the green hat.

  • Blue Hat: The blue hat represents process control. Think of an airtraffic controller or a traffic cop. In a meeting, the blue hat is worn by the chairperson. The wearer of the blue hat must direct the thinking when ideas start to run dry. That’s when it’s time to switch to green-hat thinking. Or perhaps the chairperson will need to remind the others that it's time to put on the black hats and look for weaknesses in the plan.

How does it work in practice?

Because you’re the one with a problem to solve, ask your adviser if you can chair the next group meeting. That way you’ll be wearing the blue hat and will be in charge of keeping the parallel thinking on track.

Start the meeting by presenting the problem. Explain the objectives of the Six Thinking Hats. Then ask the group to move on to white-hat thinking: What are the facts? What information do you know?

Once the facts are in order, it’s time for everyone to put on green hats. This means brainstorming and being as creative as possible. If someone in the group says "Great idea!" or "That will never work," gently remind them that green-hat thinking is purely creative. This isn't the time to be judging ideas; it's the time to be generating them, the wackier the better. There will be time for yellow-hat thinking and black-hat thinking later on.

When green-hat thinking has generated some ideas, red-hat thinking can come into play. The group can use "gut feelings" to choose one or two possible ideas to pursue.

Yellow-hat thinking comes next, highlighting the benefits and upsides of each idea. Then it’s time for black-hat thinking, the voice of doom and gloom; it’s time to poke holes in each idea or strategy. Green-hat thinking can come back into play here, to brainstorm ideas for overcoming potential weaknesses.

Finally, at the end of the meeting, the blue hat calls for a plan of action. What needs to be done and when?

If it’s not obvious by now why this technique is so powerful, think again about how your group meetings usually go. When everyone is adversarial, or bored, coming up with a coherent strategy is difficult if not impossible.

But with everyone wearing the same hat at the same time, you’ll have a much better chance of success. In addition, this exercise might help you understand what type of thinking you tend to employ most of the time. In other words, are you a perpetual yellow-hat thinker, or are you a pessimist who employs black-hat thinking as you go about your work? Perhaps you are more intuitive in your approach, relying on the red hat most of the time. No matter which hat fits you best, you, and your science, will benefit from learning to wear different hats at different times.

Next time you’ve come to a dead end in your research and don’t know where to go next, put on the Six Thinking Hats during a group meeting and see what you can come up with as a team.

Update, 29 June 2007: Information about training in Six Hats techniques is available on the DebonoSystems Web site.

Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your PhD: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Dr. Gosling is a senior medical writer at CMP Medica, Malaysia, and also works as a freelance science writer. Dr. Noordam is professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a Regional Audit Organization. He has also worked for McKinsey and Co.

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700091