Leading Successful Meetings By Sachi Sellasamy

Leading Successful Meetings using Dr. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats

Sachi Sellasamy

“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing but together can decide that nothing can be done” Fred Allen

 “They sit there in committees day after day, and they each put in a color and it comes out gray. And we all have heard the saying, which is true as well as witty.  That a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee” Allan Sherman

Alan and Sherman highlight frustrations that individuals face in day to day life in organizations. The dreaded meetings! It seems that daily, weekly, monthly and yearly meetings, sometimes disguised as committees, planning sessions, problem solving task forces, discussion groups and under a multitude of other names are a bane in organizational life. Yet it seems that organizations simply cannot live without them. Why is this so? And if we must have the meetings, why don’t we make them more effective and even stimulating? So people would actually look forward to the meetings! When was the last time you called that someone in charge of meetings and requested that there should be another meeting soon or asked them not to forget to include you in the next meeting?

Why meetings?

Meetings are held for a number of reasons. They are used as a forum where organization members come together to agree on organization priorities and to plan tasks for implementation. This includes the need to share resources and information. The number of meetings also increases with specialization and the corresponding development of functional departments. This increases the need for coordination between the departments in organizations. Additional meetings are also required to trouble shoot implementation problems and to add new activities as a result of changes in the environment. Thus the primary focus of all meetings is for planning and implementing tasks. The nature of tasks in organization requires the sharing of information and group creative problem solving and a need for consensus decisions.

Information Technology has created a paradox for meetings. On the one hand it has reduced the need for meetings that are purely for sharing of information. These would include information on planning, coordination and implementation of tasks and projects. And there is no doubt that with IT, much of the sharing of information are done more effectively. On the other hand, because information is readily available to all players in the same field including the competition, a new need has become more urgent. Each of the activities of planning, coordination and implementation now requires a new dimension; the creativity element with new ideas to cope with increasing competition and change. And since this task requires the joint discussions and efforts of all organization members, there is a need now for more meetings!

IT has also created another need for managers. In the past the managers’ decisions were affected because of lack of information. Today the opposite is true. Managers have immediate and large amount of information from the internet and face what is known as information overload. The challenge now is on how to sift the information quickly to make sense of the information for optimum decisions. This challenge becomes even more pronounced when teams of managers gather in meetings to discuss agendas and need to sift thru information together, with hopes of making optimum decisions.

What are some observed problems with meetings?

The most upsetting problems of meetings were identified by Allen and Sherman above. Can you imagine 10 highly paid executives sitting around a table for the better part of a day discussing something that does not result in some outcome that can benefit the organization? Meetings that cannot produce value added outcome and is only able to produce outcomes that are unacceptable are a definite waste of time and effort and of course resources.

A closely associated problem is the length of time the meeting takes. How often have you been in a meeting that seems to have developed a life of its own? It seems to go on and on without a specific focus or direction. A meeting that should have taken not more than 30 minutes took half a day. And because of that it blew your own schedule and you had to miss your daughter’s birthday.

There is also the meeting that includes quite a large crowd but only three persons speak for the entire duration of the meeting. Of the three persons who speak, only two are associated to the agenda. The third person is a PMA (Professional Meeting Attendee) who can speak on any agenda without even having knowledge of the subject. They are the life of meetings and contribute with quotes, rumors and even what’s on the CEO’s mind, tomorrow. And the only time the others present need to open their mouths at the meeting, are to sip the coffee or to eat the goodies that are placed in front of them.

To address the above problems we need to develop clear agendas with specific outcomes. And we need to include only those persons that can contribute to the agenda discussions. In addition we need a tool that would allow agendas to be discussed in groups in a focused manner, without digressions and saving time. It should enable managers to sift through large volumes of information systematically and allow the participation of all present. Further, the tool for discussion should be holistic in that it would enable participants at the meeting to consider all possible outcomes and incorporate the inclusion of creative insights when necessary. With such a tool in place, we can look forward to better and shorter meetings with more satisfying decisions and outcomes as well. One such tool for leading effective meetings is Dr Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats that is currently applied in large number of meetings in organizations, with very positive outcomes.

The Six Thinking Hats was designed by Dr. Edward de Bono, “regarded by many to be the leading authority in the world in the field of creative thinking and the direct teaching of thinking as a skill” (de bono website).  From his research he has identified that there are six modes of thinking. De Bono uses the metaphor of a hat to represent thinking and different colours for each hat to denote the six different modes of thinking. Hats are traditionally linked to thinking and the use of different coloured hats by de Bono signifies that we can change our thinking by simply changing our hats.

The Six Thinking Hats and a brief summary of the function of each hat are as follows:

Blue Hat: Thinking about the thinking or control of the thinking process.

White Hat: Identifies data and information objectively- both existing and what is needed;

Yellow Hat: Examines the benefits and positive aspects;

Black Hat: Evaluates logical caution;

Red Hat: Legitimizes feelings in decision process;

Green Hat: Looks for alternatives, new ideas and creativity;

Blue Hat: Thinking about the thinking or control of the thinking process. Sets the agenda and facilitates meetings and discussions.

Further conceptual clarity and possible practical applications of the hats, would be needed for the hats to be put into actual use. But we can summarise the benefits of the Six Thinking Hats, particularly in addressing the challenges in meetings. Let us briefly examine why the Six Hats is an important tool for more effective thinking.

Dr. de Bono identified that current thinking that takes place has some fundamental weaknesses. When we think we tend to think in many different directions. This leads to cluttered thinking and the digressions in our thinking is reflected in meetings. Thinking in a focussed manner, using each hat as a hook to focus our mind would allow for more efficient thinking in individuals as well as in groups in meetings.

Current thinking is also adversarial in nature. De Bono says that this adversarial system is an inheritance from the Greeks system of debates in examining issues. This system has become established in our daily life including parliament and law courts. While debates have their benefits, there is a tendency for debates to promote a win loose attitude with an adversarial style in discussions. In addition, sides are taken and information sharing becomes limited between the two sides. This may be reflected in meetings when issues are debated with individual agendas and egos coming into play and company welfare sacrificed. The use of the Six Thinking Hats provides for a system of parallel thinking in groups that allows issues to be discussed systematically without the intrusion of ego. Without the normal debates, discussions are faster and the holistic system also ensures all eventualities are considered including creative alternatives, for better decisions. 

The Hats system provides individuals with an opportunity to separate their ideas from themselves and in effect their ego as well. This has two related benefits. Individuals are able to contribute more effectively under each of the hats and also put forward ideas without undue criticism from colleagues. This gives them confidence to participate in meetings. It also ensures that ideas can be examined more thoroughly and accepted or discarded on merit without egos being dashed.

Leading Effective Meetings.

Using the Six Thinking Hats would assist in leading successful meetings. The first step is what we can call as pre meeting preparation that includes identifying and clarifying the agenda objectives and setting the sequence for the discussions at the meetings. The second step is facilitating the meeting discussions in a focussed manner and summarizing the discussions. The Blue Hat should be used in identifying the agenda. Dr. de Bono suggests that there are different ways of stating problems and issues. Thus we should be aware of the desired outcomes in setting agendas. The clarity of the agenda with an understanding of the expected outcome and persons who need to be involved is the first task. Table 1: Clarifying Agendas could be used by those setting meeting agendas and identifying who should be present at the meeting.

  

Table 1: Clarifying Agendas

The use of Table 1 is merely for clarifying the agenda items. While the Blue Hat identifies the agenda/objective, the White Hat supports further clarification of the agenda by exploring its importance. The Green Hat takes this a step further by looking for alternative solutions and more White Hat information is required for when implementation should take place and who could be involved with the task.

The next step is to structure the agenda items in a logical fashion. The Draft Agenda could be circulated to the participants with clear instructions on what they need to prepare for presentation at the meeting. If the presentation requires a technical paper or lots of information, such background papers should be circulated to the meeting participants before the meeting as appendices so that lengthy presentations at the meeting are avoided. The meeting should only deal with issues from the discussion.

With the agenda items clarified, we could also decide that some items could be discussed in smaller groups. A number of small meetings are preferred over a large meeting as they are more efficient in terms of time and output.

Each agenda item should also have a start and finish time. The Hats system could also help in determining the required time for each agenda item and the entire meeting. Each agenda item would have a sequence of hats that would help to facilitate the discussion. The sequence for discussions would be determined according to the nature and scope of the issue and a good understanding of the application of the Six Thinking Hats. As an example Table 2: Exploring new markets for a current product is provided below.

Table 2: Exploring new markets (Blue Hat)

Using the Hats system for discussion and Green Hat tools for creative thinking, the above agenda item should not take more than 45 minutes.  Sequences are also established for other agendas with timing. From all the sequences for the agenda items, we could determine how long the meeting would take. So every meeting would than have a start time and also a time when it should end.

With a clear agenda and a sequence for the discussion of each of the agenda item, it would be that much easier for leading discussions in meetings. The facilitator using the Blue Hat would begin the meeting by stating the agenda and the key objectives to be achieved and the time frame allotted for each agenda item. The Blue Hat would further ensure that discussions using the sequences of Hats would be focussed and allow for a more complete exploration of issues, including creative alternatives in the time allotted. This would mean faster and better decisions. It further allows for greater participation of all present, leading to greater satisfaction at meetings. People would look forward to meetings that produce value outcomes in a timely manner and where they can contribute to decisions. The Blue Hat will also summarize the discussions with actions to be taken with time frames.  And the coffee and goodies are available to the participants at the end of the meeting.

Conclusion

The Six Thinking Hats is a powerful system and can help in Leading Successful Meetings. Dr, Edward de Bono, the originator of the Six Thinking Hats and Lateral Thinking has the ability to take a complex subject like thinking and creativity and make it powerfully simple.