Do You Leverage All the Thinking Hats?
I'm a big "Scandal" fan (the TV show). I know I'm not alone. And if you are a "Scandal" fan, you know they are constantly referencing "white hats" and "black hats." On the show, they're simply talking about "good and bad." But in the business world, "thinking hats" are incredibly important. Decision making is hard enough with all the challenges we face in the nonprofit industry — we have to make tough decisions and often there is not a clear "win-win" scenario. But I believe the industry misses out on great opportunities because many of today's leaders don't gain a full view into what a specific decision can mean for a program or an organization.
The concept of the "thinking hats" — there are six of them — is simply the approach of breaking down the decision-making process into some critical steps/ways of thinking. As I look back on the many teams in my career —ones that I have been a part of and ones that I have lead — one thing is clear: It is not easy to find people who actually have the ability to think through all six steps on their own. In fact, it's almost impossible. Where we have been the most successful in decision making was when the team was a great mix of business personalities and collectively thought through the six different steps in the process.
So, let's talk about the six hats. Folks, this is not just some business fad. Edward de Bono is credited with the concept of the "Six Thinking Hats," but over the years they have been applied in multiple ways by multiple consultants. I'm going to apply them specifically to the nonprofit industry relative to a marketing and fundraising perspective.
But first, here are general descriptions about Thinking Hats:
- White Hat Thinking: This thinking step is about facts and information. What is known already and what information is needed to really make the decisions at hand? Many consider this step to be neutral — i.e., no negative or positive opinions allowed.
- Red Hat Thinking: This thinking step is about feelings. All the hunches, unsubstantiated opinions and non-factual thoughts are represented here. This thinking step is as important as the white-hat thinking step. With this step you are allowed to actually have discussions without any justification needed and no prejudice — however, as you can imagine, this step should not last long but is critical to garner all the thoughts from the team.
- Green Hat Thinking: This thinking step is focused on creativity. This is very different than red-hat thinking. It allows you to explore the possibilities, new ideas and new solutions to the decision.
- Black Hat Thinking: This thinking step is about the negative elements relative to the decision. What are the risks? Why might something not work? What are the perceived problems? What are the downsides to making a specific decision? You have permission to be negative in this step, but this step cannot trump the other steps.
- Yellow Hat Thinking: This thinking step is focused on the positive elements of the decision. It balances the black-hat step. Within this process, you work through the benefits that can come from the solution/decision. What is the value involved in the decision? This step must also include some level of justification for benefits and value that would come with this decision.
- Blue Hat Thinking: This thinking step is actually about process. Is everything being considered — i.e., are all six thinking steps being taken? This step typically results in documentation and summaries of what happens in the other five steps.
How does it work for fundraising?
Now, to make this specific to the nonprofit industry, let's actually put this to use with one of the most common decision moments in nonprofit fundraising. It has happened to all of us. What happens when you are presented with a new idea or new strategy?
As someone who is constantly bringing new ideas to nonprofits, sometimes I feel like this is my "everyday life," but I also have very clear memories when I was at the American Cancer Society and Arthritis Foundation and faced with these very situations.
So, here is my version of nonprofit thinking hats on whether to invest in a new strategy — the questions you should ask and conversations you should have with your team and your leaders as you come to a decision:
White Hat Thinking
- What is the genesis of the idea?
- What challenge/problem is this idea trying to resolve?
- What is the amount of this investment?
- What is the projected ROI and what data is the projection based upon?
- Has this idea been executed anywhere else and, if yes, what are the facts about success, failure, ROI, etc.
- What is the timeline for this idea? In other words, when will the expenses be needed and when will the ROI be achieved? Is it in the same fiscal year? Does it cross fiscal years?
- What steps will be required to execute the idea?
Red Hat Thinking
- What are the opinions about this idea from the stakeholders?
- What is the level of support from the stakeholder team?
- How is this idea perceived in the industry?
- Are there other priorities perceived to be more important than this one?
- How is innovation perceived within your organization?o If this idea is solving a particular problem/challenge - are there other ways to do it?
Green Hat Thinking
- If this idea is solving a particular problem/challenge – are there other ways to do it?
- Are there ways to scale back (or scale up) the idea/strategy?
Black Hat Thinking
- What are the risks with pushing this idea forward?
- What happens if the revenue (or value) projections are not achieved?
- What levers drive the projections (cost and revenue) and how solid are those levers?
- Based on the process steps required (see white-hat step) to execute the idea, what happens if the steps cannot be done? What's the likelihood of failure?
- Politically, how risky is this decision within the organization? (Is this a big ditch or a small ditch and will you die in it if this fails?)
- What is the definition of failure with this idea?
Yellow Hat Thinking
- What will this idea help you achieve?
- What are the short-term and long-term benefits of this idea?
- How does this idea move your fundraising strategy forward?
- What is the benefit of the extra revenue from this idea?
- What is the long-term value of solving the particular problem this idea is trying to resolve?
Blue Hat Thinking
- What are the key points from each thinking step?
- Was there a major point of contention across the stakeholders?
- Was there a major point of agreement across the stakeholders?
- Was there any challenge with any of the steps? If yes, what were the challenges and how were they resolved?
If you've made it to the end of this blog and are asking, "Why is this important?," I'm going to bet you have at one point uttered these words:
- "Oh, we can't do that - I tried that years ago and it didn't work."
- "We just can't afford anything - even something that could make a lot of money."
- "I just don't like that idea so no, I'm not interested."
- "I realize the test proves this works - but we just aren't interested." (in doing better?)
- "This is very different than our typical ____ approach" (I don't like change?)
OK, perhaps I'm being a little harsh above. But, the key message here is that if you don't take the time to think through all the elements of decision making, I'm betting you are, unequivocally, missing out on opportunities because we all know the Black Hat can sometimes be the loudest voice in the room (or in your head).
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.