A Colorful Way to Solve Problems

7 minute read

Whenever you’re faced with a problem that needs to be solved, you probably approach that process in the same way most of the time.

That’s a perfectly normal, perfectly human thing to do.  

Often, when you’re dealing with a problem, you’re under duress. You want to solve it as quickly and painlessly as possible. So, it’s only natural to approach finding a solution in a familiar way… one that relies on your strengths.

But, unless something is on fire, you probably have time — at least an hour, and probably more — to carefully consider the problem and your options.

If you deliberately come at the problem from different directions, chances are you’ll recognize multiple viable solutions… and one of them might be unexpected, exciting… and very promising.

To help you get creative with your problem solving, I’d like to introduce you to a gentleman named Edward de Bono and his many hats.

A Hat for Every Occasion

Edward de Bono was a physician and commentator, who was interested in how people think… and how to help them think more productively.

One of his best-known books is Six Thinking Hats. In this book, de Bono provides a framework for solving problems more productively and creatively.

The book outlines six different roles or “hats” you might wear while analyzing and evaluating a problem or opportunity.

The first is a blue hat. This hat is for setting up processes and handling administration. It manages the logistics of the problem-solving procedure. If you’re working alone, you might start with the blue hat to set goals for your problem-solving, hat-wearing session. The blue hat is concerned with questions like:

  • What is the problem I want to solve?
  • What is the timeline I want to work within?
  • What changes do I want to implement?
  • What does a successful outcome look like?

Now imagine taking off your blue hat and donning a yellow one. When you wear the yellow hat, your goal is to look at the problem optimistically. Try questions like these:

  • What are all the things that can be gained from the situation?
  • What is good about the situation?
  • What’s the best possible outcome?
  • What new opportunities will this problem reveal?

The black hat is a more somber hat, but possibly the most important one. When wearing the black hat, consider the downside of the situation and the risks involved with the solutions you’re generating. When you wear the black hat, your role is to consider what could go wrong and to think about new problems the solutions you’re considering might create.

Next, try on the green hat to get creative with your problem solving. Wear this hat to think about the problem from a completely different perspective and to try to come up with solutions that use existing resources in new ways or ways that are completely out of the norm.

Problem solving without looking at facts, data, and evidence is foolhardy. And this is what the white hat is for. Switch to this hat to get more analytical. When you wear the white hat, you’re interested in the numbers. What do the facts tell you? What is the evidence suggesting?

Finally, there’s the red hat. When you put on this hat, you give yourself permission to get emotional. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How do I feel about the problem and about each solution I’ve come up with?
  • What am I excited about?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What is my gut telling me to do?

Among these hats, one probably feels more comfortable and natural to you than the others. But, by deliberately spending time wearing each hat (figuratively, of course), you can come up with more ways to solve a problem, and possibly strike on a good solution you would otherwise have overlooked.

Putting the Hats to the Test:  You’ve Just Lost Your Biggest Client

assorted fedora hat lot

Now that I’ve introduced you to the six hats, let’s look at a specific scenario and how the hats can help you.

You’ve got a big problem. Your biggest client just decided to move the work they contract to you in house. It’s not your fault, but these things happen. Now you need to line up some new projects to recover the lost income… and you need to do it fast.

Normally, when a situation like this comes up, you panic for a minute, but then you reach out to your network to drum up work. That’s a smart thing to do… but it isn’t the only thing you can do.

This time, before you jump into action, you pause, and look at the problem using de Bono’s hats.

You begin by putting on the blue hat. You lay some ground rules for your problem-solving session. You decide you’ll spend an hour on the process. You’ll wear each hat to generate solutions. And then you’ll wear the red hat to determine which solutions you feel the most excited about. You’ll pick your top five and then use the hats to further analyze each one.

With a process laid out, you get to work.

You start with the white hat. You think about all the ways you’ve marketed yourself before and make a list of the methods that have worked best. You also write down two or three strategies based on what you know has been working for other writers in your network.

Next you put on the yellow hat, and you dream big. Here you write down three ways you might be able to land bigger clients for bigger fees, turning this client loss into a big boost in your income.

From there, you switch to the green hat. With that hat on, you start thinking about the wackiest ways possible to market yourself. You put things on your list like walking into businesses and introducing yourself, starting a TikTok channel dedicated to original poems about content marketing, and hosting local lunch-and-learns for business owners. (That last one wasn’t something you’d considered before, but it looks viable and exciting.)

After that, you try on the black hat and think about your safest bets for getting new work. Your standby of reaching out to your network makes its way onto the list. And you add doing agency work to the list — that seems like there could be high demand and some quick turnaround. You also consider contingencies for what to do, if you don’t land clients as fast as you need to.

Finally, you put the red hat on. With this hat, you ask yourself what you really want to do… what you feel safest doing… and what you’re scared to do. The answers to each question put some new possibilities on your list.

You’re 20 minutes into your problem-solving session, and you’ve got a long list of ideas. You keep the red hat on and choose the five you’re most excited about.

One is hosting lunch-and-learns for local business owners. Now, it’s time to evaluate that idea with each hat.

  • The blue hat gives you an idea of what you’ll need to do to make that happen — find a location, reach out to local business, advertise in the local paper, post on Facebook and Meetup, and so on.
  • The yellow hat imagines how many new people you’ll meet and how many different projects could come your way, how you’ll expand your network, and how you’ll be able to help people and connect with them on a regular basis.
  • The green hat helps you come up with topics you might cover at each event, how you’ll collect contact information for the people you meet, and what your follow-up might look like.
  • The black hat imagines the worst-case scenario… that no one comes. If you’re careful about how you advertise, the cost won’t be high — just a bit of your time and maybe a bruise to your ego.
  • The white hat sends you on a five-minute research exercise, where you see that these types of events on Facebook and Meetup in your area usually have a dozen or so people planning to attend.
  • And the red hat tells you that you really like this idea. You’re excited about being in a room with people, answering questions, and building relationships.

After you go through each of your top five ideas, you have a clear view of the amount of effort you’ll need to put into each one, which have the highest risk, which offer the biggest reward, and which you’re most eager to do.

You still plan to reach out to your network… but, in addition, you have two strategies you’re eager to test that have a high potential reward, but that you can pull off by investing time instead of money.

Fun, right?

Applying the Hats Opportunities


These six hats aren’t just useful when you have a problem to solve. They’re also helpful when you’re faced with a new opportunity… or when you want to create one.

In this case, imagine you’ve decided to launch a side business. One that uses your writing and digital-marketing skills, but that isn’t tied to client work.

You have a few ideas, but you aren’t sure which one to pursue. So, you decide to break out de Bono’s hats to clarify your thinking.

In this case, you aren’t coming up with ideas for a side business (although you could use the hats for that if you wanted to). Instead, you’re evaluating the ideas you already have.

Just like before, you start with the blue hat. You set a goal for your session, a timeframe for the exercise, and a basic approach. You have three ideas, and you decide to look at each one of them with each hat to get a clear picture of what each opportunity really looks like, in terms of cost, effort, and potential payout.

You put your first idea at the top of a piece of paper. And going through each of the hats, you think through things like:

  • The steps you’ll need to go through to implement (blue)
  • The assets you’ll need to create (blue)
  • The earning potential of the business (white)
  • What you’ll learn from the effort (yellow)
  • How you feel about getting started (red)
  • What investment is needed to get the business off the ground (white)
  • What the likely obstacles are that you’ll encounter (black)
  • What new opportunities may come out of the business (yellow)
  • How you’ll differentiate yourself from other businesses in the space (green)
  • Ways you might grow and expand the business after initial success (green)

Once you do this for all three of your ideas, you realize you have two really exciting and viable side businesses you could build. You decide to go with the one you have the better gut feeling about, and then revisit the other in a year.

By going through this exercise when you have problems to solve, when you need to make decisions, or when you want to create new opportunities in your life, you’ll gain a clearer idea of what the best options are for your situation, how to get started, and what to anticipate in terms of effort, time-frame, investment, and reward. Give it a try and see what you think!