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Six Thinking Hats

hatsIf we’re trying to make a decision, how do we stop the most critical person being the one who gets all the airspace?

Have we really considered all the angles when we make decisions?

What questions should I ask in a meeting?

These are questions we get asked a lot by business leaders, HR professionals and anyone who is questioning the value of the time we all spend in meetings.  Based on the concept of Six Thinking Hats, our experience and our focus on keeping it simple, we have developed an approach that works for making decisions, reviewing an idea and a wide range of other contexts.

This is an overview of how it works and how you can do it yourself.

Jelly Bean Diversity

Edward de Bono revolutionised the way we consider decision making and thinking overall.  He highlighted that since the Greek philosophers we have celebrated critical thinkers.  It is the most critical person in a meeting who gets the most airspace.  And what is the outcome of too much critical thinking? A lack of action.

De Bono highlighted the importance of more balance in our thinking, challenging us to yes be critical, as well as positive, creative, data driven, emotionally open and structured.

So how does this work in practice?

For meetings to be effective we need to be thinking in the same direction.  How often do we waste hours in meetings playing the tennis of,

“I agree with Richard, but I’m not convinced that will work here.”

“Well I disagree with that, we’ve got early data telling us it does work.”

“Yes but that was only in the area of…” and so on.

This is thinking in opposing directions which is unproductive.  De Bono showed us a simple way to all think in the same direction, which takes disciplined facilitation and works extremely well.

The six hats represent six types of thinking – and we can all put on every single hat.  Some people take this to the letter, have people wearing coloured hats and stick to the structure very strictly.  We like keeping it simple, so we tend to simply ask the questions that we find helpful under each hat – and if someone goes off topic, we remind them we’re only looking at this angle at the moment.

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We’ve listed some of the questions we find most helpful here under each of the topics or hats for decision making and considering a challenge:


  • What is good about this idea?
  • What are the benefits of this approach?
  • What could be a potential benefit of this?
  • What are the positive features?


What is not so good about this?

  • What are the risks?
  • What could go wrong?
  • What experience tells us this might not work?


  • What could we do to make this better?
  • What new ideas could grow out of what we have already discussed?
  • What else could we do to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks?
  • How could we overcome barriers to doing this or things that have stopped it from working before?


  • What information do we already have to help us make a decision?
  • What further information do we need to make a decision about this?
  • What data will we want to monitor our success?
  • What other data might be interesting to look at?  What might that tell us?


  • We’ve talked rationally about this, now let’s just acknowledge that we’ll each have an emotional or intuitive reaction to the idea as well. How do you feel about it / what does your gut tell you?
  • What are you excited about?
  • What are your fears?
  • How might this affect you personally ?

The final topic or hat is the process or structure of facilitation itself.  You might use this in your own preparation time, thinking about how to best structure the meeting, or it may be that you use the concept of structure to end the meeting with questions like:

  • What have we agreed?
  • What will happen next?
  • Who will do that?
  • When will we review that?

You can find out more in Edward De Bono’s frankly amazing book, click the picture and be whisked away!

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Difficult Conversations Part 2

Preparing for the other person’s response…

One of the things that stops managers entering into difficult conversations, feedback or chats about performance is an anxiety over how the other person may respond.  What if they quit?  Cry?  Argue?  Shout?  Take it really badly?  Disagree and I can’t hold my own?  What if they say XYZ?

And so as a learning designer, facilitator or coach, we have the opportunity to help managers prepare for those eventualities – and for those they cannot even imagine.  The power here is in reducing the irrational fear.  Notice how our fear about something is usually worse than the reality of that bad thing happening.

For example, managers share stories about someone quitting and it being the best thing that ever happened for the team.  Other managers have experienced people crying and found that it really wasn’t that bad – you just deal with it, like anything else in life.

Sharing these stories and asking delegates to consider their own experiences of reality not being as bad as we fear, enables a more rational conversation.  What will you plan to do if the person cries?  Argues?  Threatens to quit?

Because the fact is that the question “what if he argues back?” is not generally explored and answered as a question.  It is used as a threatening statement to ourselves to say, “don’t bother starting the conversation, it may not end well.”  Actually helping managers work through those questions and realise they have answers, is extremely empowering.

Here are some classic responses we’ve heard managers come up with in small group work…

What if they cry?
Ask them if they want to take five minutes / go to the bathroom / get a tissue, then suggest we come back to the conversation when they feel ready.  Don’t let them off the hook though, make sure we come back to the conversation if it’s five minutes, hours or days later.
What if they argue back or disagree about the issue?
Stay calm and find out more about what it is they disagree with and maybe what they do agree with.  Ask questions like, “tell me more about what it is you think about this” and “help me understand, when you say you disagree, what do you mean?”
Rather than trying to convince the other person they’re wrong, work to understand how they think they’re right.  When we understand the other person’s thinking better, we can ask further questions like, “what impact do you think that has on the team?” or “how does that relate to the business priorities we’re working on?”
What if they threaten to quit?
Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  But we could find out what their concerns are that are making them want to quit.
What is it they want and can we realistically offer that?  One manager shared a story of a colleague who wanted to avoid all people management, so that worked fine, they found a technical specialist role for them and everyone was happy.  But if what the colleague wants is never to be challenged on their behaviour, then they probably won’t last long!
What if they say something I’m not prepared for?
This is arguably the most critical question, as it is the one that throws us the most.  One manager shared a story of a difficult conversation where a team member had ignored specific instructions in an email and gone against the manager’s requests multiple times.
The manager raised this as an issue, prepared for arguments about who was right or wrong and how things should be done, but the colleague simply said, “I never saw those emails.”  The manager was flabbergasted!  How could this person have missed that email every time?  Surely they were lying!  But what could the manager do?  Completely shocked by this statement, the manager had no idea what to say so said, “ok, well make sure you check emails from me in future,” and that was that.  Afterwards the manager was so upset, “why didn’t I say more, challenge them, ask them how they would make sure this did not happen in future?”
The key is to give yourself time to think in these moments, so many managers come up with a get-out clause like, “I think we need to explore this more but I need some time to think it through, let’s meet again tomorrow to discuss.”  Or if you think you can get there quicker, “ok I could do with a coffee, let’s take five minutes.”

Of course there are no right or wrong responses here, this is all about simply feeling prepared.  It is no good scripting out some feedback, to then feel completely unprepared for the unscripted response from the other person.  So encourage managers to have a few stock phrases and questions up their sleeves for these conversations.  The ones we hear that people find most useful are:

Can I just clarify, when you say, do I understand it right that you mean….?

Tell me more about that….. Help me understand….

So what do you really think?

What impact could that have on other people?

What would you do now if you were me?

Let’s take some time out to get some clear thinking, how about the same time tomorrow?

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Coaching Uncovered

What happens in coaching sessions?

We have been delighted this year to have received more requests for coaching than ever before.  We’re delighted because we love doing it.  It’s one thing working with 12 people on a workshop, but the difference we can see in someone, working 1:1 over six months, is incredibly rewarding.

The question we often get asked, particularly by those who are organising the coaching, but have never actually had a coach themselves, is what actually happens?  What conversations are happening and how are we adding value as coaches?  Of course we cannot go into detail with them about their company’s coaching clients, but we can share some overall trends and useful insights about where we see the greatest change occur for people.

Having coached MDs, Marketing, Finance and Operations Directors, CTOs, PR professionals and not-for-profit leaders, we are often asked how on earth we add value to such a diverse range of people.  The simple answer is that all of these people have the same challenges.  They need to get some clear thinking space, consider how to translate ideas into solid goals and strategy and how to handle difficult conversations.

The greatest change occurs when people realise one or more of the following:

“I haven’t really asked myself what the problem is or what outcome I want.”

“I am limiting myself through fear.”

“I’m not saying what I’m thinking.”

This is the theme that underlies issues as broad as strategic planning and setting a new direction for the business all the way down to having a difficult conversation with one person.  In our article on difficult conversations, we share our top tips for those less comfortable meetings, which is the number one topic that comes up in our coaching sessions.  But here we focus on the broader themes and how you can benefit from these two insights for yourself and with your own coaching and mentoring clients.

Think of something that you want to achieve, or that you’ve been working to achieve for some time and it’s just not going as well as you would like.  From performance managing one individual to changing the culture of an organisation of thousands, it doesn’t matter what it is – take some time now to think about what it is you want to achieve.

Now consider these questions:

What is the outcome you want?  Work it through, past the initial project or conversation and to a longer-term outcome, what is it?  Why is that important to you? 

Imagine yourself in that outcome, you have achieved it.  What will be happening?  How is life / business / the team better? 

What could be holding you back from getting there?  What are you afraid of?

What do you need to say and to whom (as usually to achieve something we need to involve others)?  What would you say if you were really honest and just said what you thought?

What is holding you back from saying that?

These questions can help you identify the true outcome you want, or indeed challenge yourself: maybe the outcome you thought you wanted is really not that important and you can start considering something else.  The questions help you identify fears that are stopping you from acting.  And when you acknowledge those fears, you can challenge them.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Would that really be so bad?  What would you do if that worst situation did happen?

Realising that you would carry on, overcome challenges and survive can be very empowering.  Finally these questions can help you realise that you have simply avoided having the straightforward conversation that could unblock progress.  What if you had a go at just saying it?

This is a common flow of conversation in coaching sessions, because unclear goals, fear and not saying what we’re thinking are often are greatest challenges.

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Cultural Differences?

Tomato1 400x265

You say tom-ay-toe, we say…

Are cultural differences across the globe a problem?  Do they stop global Learning or Organisation Development programmes from working?

We often get asked about training for people working across cultures: “Can you give me guidance on how to work with our teams in Latin America?  I’m going to China for work, what advice can you give me?

And having been asked these questions for so many years, even though we’re not experts on cultural differences – we’ve tried to be as helpful as possible.  We’ve always said “that’s not our area of expertise, but here’s a suggestion you could try…”  But does our advice work?

So having spent the past few weeks working with people from the UK, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, China, The Philippines, The US and Australia, we’re pretty chuffed to report back – yes, it works!

Totem Gummi Bears

The key learning point for us (with this and in most of life) is simply… to not make assumptions

Or rather to question the assumptions we immediately make.  When a delegate highlights that “this approach won’t work in x location”, we have simply asked what makes them think that and what might make it work better.

And when we introduce an idea that we know works well in the UK, we ask, “how might that work for you?  What challenges might you face with this in your workplace?  How could you make this work better for you?”

These are the same questions we ask regardless of cultural differences, and they work because they put the ownership on the individual to explain the cultural challenges and importantly, explore how to overcome them.

Why does this approach work? 

It is worth remembering that our brains crave control: we do not like uncertainty or a feeling that we are not controlling a situation.  So going to work in a different culture, where our usual patterns of working and set expectations of how conversations go are challenged, can be very uncomfortable.

So we try to control the situation by coming up with theories and ideas on how to adapt and fit.  The problem is that our theories will be based on our culture and assumptions, so can often miss the mark.  Asking another person, “how do you think this could work here?” Or “how can we adapt this idea so it works?” Brings multiple benefits.

– you gain insight from someone who knows the culture better than you

– that person feels valued and appreciates that you want their opinion

– you make the process collaborative, building trust and helping you better understand the culture

– you avoid making inappropriate assumptions that backfire

So here’s our suggestion, stop worrying about what difference culture might make and simply ask the question.

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Survey done. Engagement over.

It’s a classic situation employees the world over experience…

Why do we do an engagement survey but then never do anything with the results?  What’s the point?

The sad thing is that there is almost always a great intention to do far more.  Managers and HR teams have most likely planned to do follow up sessions, but then busyness and new priorities have taken over.

Or maybe you’re in the position of doing some follow up but wondering how much difference it’s really making.  This article suggests a few ideas on how you can make the most of your engagement survey follow up.

  • Ask for more
  • We as well as they
  • Champions and accountability
  • Book the review now

Ask for more

The data from your survey gives you an indication of what’s working well and what needs to be better, but numbers can be hard to bring to life.  Run focus groups / think tanks to ask for more insight.  “The data tells us that X is seen as not working well right now.  Tell us more about that.  What is working there and what could be better?  Do you have any examples you can share?”

We as well as they

The tendency in these focus groups is for the magical “they” to be blamed for everything and tasked with fixing everything.  “This company should…” And “senior management need to…” Are common comments.  The challenge with this is that it can remove any personal accountability for change.  You could add in questions like, “ok that’s what senior management need to do in your mind, and what could you do as well to make things better?”

This is where you can combine some personal development into your focus groups, teaching people a few tools for resilience and dealing with uncertainty.  You’re giving them immediate ideas on how they could react differently to what they find frustrating whilst also helping them clarify what needs changing within the company structures and ways of working.

Champions and accountability

It’s always great to have people within each team or function taking the lead on follow up with specific actions, as it highlights it is not HR’s job to fix everything.  Ask who will take the lead, what that means they need to do and what support they might like.  Then hold that person to account by agreeing milestone dates, what follow up there will be etc.

Book the review now

Even after all this good work it can be easy for the follow up to get lost.  So book in a review date or ideally a series of review dates right at the first meeting when champions and actions are agreed.

These small steps can make all the difference to your people, feeling that the time they have put into the engagement survey has been well spent and seeing that things are improving in the business.

And tying everything together, you’ll often find that the themes coming out of those focus groups tell you the highest priority areas that need covering in your management and leadership development.  If you’d like more information on engaging engagement, you can follow me.

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Mediation in the Workplace

Totem-in-the-middleUnfortunately, it’s not just world leaders who need to know this…

From time to time there may be disharmony and discord within your team.  Managing at these times can be taxing, to say the least. But with a few techniques and practical tools for handling conflict, you will be equipped to confidently deal with these difficult situations and find a positive outcome.

Research suggests that managers spend around 25% of their time managing and handling conflict in their teams. Conflict isn’t always necessarily a negative thing – it can often mean that people are passionate about their work and it can encourage creative thinking. Conflict can, however, mean that teams become ‘stuck’ when an impasse is reached, so finding ways to resolve conflict is important.

You might be asked to mediate when a conflict has reached that impasse, or you might find it helpful in your own conflicts to have the tools and tips to address it effectively.  So let’s take a quick look at some the theories and models that might help.

Academic researcher and mediation expert Joseph Stulberg*, identified a pattern common to all controversies. He termed them the Five Ps of Conflict Management:

Perceptions: Our negative perceptions of conflict impact our approach in resolving conflict as we strive to eliminate the source of these negative feelings.

Problems: Anyone can be involved in a conflict, and the amount of time, money, and equipment needed for resolution will vary according to its complexity.

Processes: There are different ways to go about resolving disputes: Suppress the conflict, give in, fight, litigate, mediate, etc.

Principles: We determine the priorities of all resolution processes on the basis of an analysis of our fundamental values regarding efficiency, participation, fairness, compliance, etc.

Practices: Power, self-interest, and unique situations are all factors relating to why people resolve disputes the way they do.

With this in mind, mediation is essentially a dialogue or negotiation which involves a third party. Mediation should be a voluntary process for all. Unlike a judge, the mediator cannot unilaterally force parties to resolve their differences and enforce a decision.

Totem Gummi Bears

HR expert and academic Glenn Varney* suggests that to resolve differences between individuals it can be valuable bringing the parties together and, with the assistance of a third party, asking the following questions:

  • What is the problem, as you perceive it?
  • What does the other person do that contributes to the problem?
  • What do you want or need from the other person?
  • What do you do that contributes to the problem?
  • What first step can you take to resolve the problem?

Many people use the talking stick idea here.  This means when one person holds the talking stick, everyone else listens.  Interruptions are simply not allowed.  You don’t of course need an actual stick for this, you can just set the ground rules at the start of the meeting.

Varney emphasises that the context is important – each individual should be questioned while the other listens then asks questions for further clarifications. They should be allowed to express their feelings and get hostility out of their systems at this stage, but key to this is that both must be willing to admit partial responsibility for the problem.

It’s also critical that the first objective is for each person to understand the other’s perspective and not to get across their own view.  As Stephen Covey puts it – “seek first to understand, then to be understood”

Both individuals then discuss a mutual definition and understanding of the problem. Agreement should be reached on what steps will be taken to resolve the problem and should be put in writing in order to prevent later misunderstandings.

This requires good listening, low defensiveness, and an ability to stay in a problem-solving mode. The key to Varney’s process is exposing the different positions as early as possible.  Which is where the facilitator or mediator can help in pulling out what’s really going on.

If you’re looking for tips on encouraging good debate and positive conflict, you might find our simple approach to Six Thinking Hats useful.


*Stulberg, J. B. (1987). Taking charge / managing conflict. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

*Varney, G. H. (1989). Building productive teams: An action guide and resource book. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, Inc.

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Lost in Translation

Totem TranslationTechnical Specialists and Business Managers.  Finding a Common Language.

It’s a classic story – we have great technical experts, but business managers cannot understand the data analysis or subsequent recommendations.  Surely we can find a way to make the relationship between business management and technical specialists a fruitful one.

Here we explore the classic story in detail and recommend five steps to make life easier and break the language barrier.  This story is not limited to IT professionals.  We have had exactly the same experience with financial experts, data analysts and HR professionals.

We once worked with an IT team who were always keen to do interesting work and see that their work made a positive impact on the business.  At least, that’s what we learned when we spent time trying to understand where they were coming from.  This was not evident to the rest of the business.  The team were well-respected experts, but there was a perception that the team did not understand the needs of the business and often did not deliver the best outcome.

The business wanted experts to do some great analysis, present the analysis in a way that made sense, then make sound recommendations and explain why.  The IT team considered that they were doing all of that, but the business was not satisfied.  Something was getting lost in translation.

Line of isolated jelly bean figures with shadows

After a series of workshops, and the design and implementation of some structured work plans, we all started to see a difference.

The workshops had explored what was important to the IT team, what they wanted to deliver for the business and the perception they wanted others to have about this team.  It became clear that this team wanted the same reputation as the business was desperate for them to live up to.

Through questions, listening and recommendations we found ways to connect what the IT team wanted to deliver with what business leaders needed to see.

The relationship improved and both teams got what they needed, by all parties following these simple steps:

Ask Questions – make sure you know what each other need, the end outcome and key information required.

Listen and Clarify Understanding – listen to responses and play back what you understand about the other person’s needs.  Check your understanding is the same as theirs.

Agree Outcomes, Success Criteria and Timelines – make sure everyone is on the same page about what will be produced and when.

Clarify Style – we all have different approaches to receiving information.  Some people like to see visuals – graphs and bar charts, others just need the detailed spreadsheets and many would prefer very little data, just top level trends and recommendations.  Find out who needs what and deliver against those needs.

Keep Reviewing – keep asking what is working well and what needs to be improved.

Sound too simple and good to be true?  We find time and again that the simplest solution is often the best.  If things are getting lost in translation then we might simply need to communicate more & focus on understanding each other.

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Effective Meetings

meetingWe all love meetings right?  Er, that’ll be a no then.

According to a Barco survey in 2013, more than 60% of all meetings we go to don’t have a defined agenda, and even more incredibly – more than 50% don’t have the right people attending!

Ask a manager their greatest challenge and you tend to hear different things.  Ask them what gets in their way and there is almost unanimous agreement on time: Specifically, having too much time wasted in meetings.

It has become perfectly acceptable to have a whole day of meetings and never question the value gained or even worse, the cost of that time.  Based on our conversations with clients, global research on meeting inefficiency and experience using various best practices, we have found that decisions can be made in a fraction of the time and meetings can be extremely effective.

One of the great ways of doing this is by using Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, you can find out more by following me.

It’s hard to train an approach unless you have seen it in practice.  We so we highly recommend you pull in an expert, naturally we can help but there are plenty of alternative providers you could choose.

Totem Gummi Bears

Isn’t this just common sense?  Why do we need training?

The simple answer is yes, this is common sense.  That doesn’t mean though that we don’t need reminding how to put common sense into practice.

Over the years of using these techniques, we have found two key themes emerging about managers’ experience of learning meeting efficiency approaches.

Firstly, many people have been taught the principles in theory.  For example, many people have read De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or have been trained to write better agenda items and clear minutes.  We find that hearing or reading about such things tends to switch people off – they cannot see it working and therefore doubt the effectiveness of the approach.

This is why we always combine the training workshop with a live meeting to demonstrate the techniques and the impact they have.

Secondly, just because something is common sense, it doesn’t mean we’re already doing it.  Seeing the approach work in your context and learning how you can apply it simply as a team or business enables you to move past what makes sense as a concept to real practical benefit.  We find that when clients tell us these approaches don’t work, it is simply because they have not seen it executed well and with benefit.

This is why we recommend that we stay with you after the training – to coach and develop your facilitators after their training and ensure they are gaining maximum benefit from the approach.

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Five Drivers

steering-wheel-smallWhat are Drivers?

Way back in 1975 Taibi Kahler identified five common drivers that motivate us, these drivers are born in our unconsciousness and can lead to some very positive, as well as destructive behaviours.

By identifying which drivers an individual exhibits most, it becomes possible to recognise and develop the potential of these positive behaviours and how to respond constructively to the negative.

These drivers result in the behaviour that we exhibit to the wider world and find their roots in our unconscious. We’ve put together a guide to the 5 drivers and a questionnaire to help you identify which of the five driver types you naturally have a preference for.  Or more likely, which blend of drivers you have.

For more information on the five drivers download this:



To use the interactive online version of this questionnaire follow me, or to take the paper based test, download this:





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