Game On CEO Gary Segal wears his blue hat.

Where are all the blue hats?

Directing and Controlling is a leadership thinking skill in high demand and short supply.

This year Game On worked with over 300 leaders in 5 large corporates. In our experience, the thinking skill these leaders lacked most was what Edward de Bono refers to in his book “Six Thinking Hats” as blue hat thinking.

De Bono’s six thinking hats theory plays itself out in most of the meetings or interactions we have at work. The white hats bring the facts and figures and indisputable proof. The red hats respond emotionally and intuitively, tapping into their own feelings and those of others. There’s always a black hat guy, the cautious pessimist that raises flags and reminds us of our past failures. The yellow hat fortunately brightens things up with an optimistic can-do attitude and a bubbling fountain of ideas. Green hat thinkers balance things out. These level-headed creatives provoke others into a creative thinking process, which rationally identifies alternatives and considers obstacles.

It’s the blue hat thinker that pulls it all together. Blue hats are like the conductor of an orchestra. Without conductors, each instrument would march to its own drum and chaos would ensue. Edward de Bono attributes blue hats with the management of thinking. This sees them setting out the purpose of thinking, instructions for thinking and organising of thinking. Blue hats define the problem, ask the right questions and control contributions. They observe and overview, comment, question and then pull it all together at the end.

Without a blue hat thinker in the room conversations will go on and on, contributions will be unstructured, contributors will overshadow each other, and agreement or coherency cannot be achieved.

At Game On we enable blue hat thinking through the inclusion of our “Directing” meta skill in our Leader as Coach programme. Effective directing sees the leader hold the structure of the conversation, from setting a clear agenda, to exploring the goal, reality, obstacles and options pertaining to the conversation. This allows for a value-added conversation where all parties are on the same page and a clear way forward can be outlined in action steps.

We take our hat off to leaders that can master the Directing meta skill off the cuff. In our experience, leaders struggle to hold a conversation as a structured thinking process and either rush through it in a monologue or skip important steps that feel like a waste of time, like clearly defining the progress that needs to be made and framing the solutions before jumping into solution-mode. This results in meetings run way over time without yielding any definite outcomes.

In the consulting work we have done to large corporates, Game On’s blue hat thinking was often required to facilitate collaborative design sessions. With Game On’s blue hat direction, large cross-functional project teams managed to agree on outcomes, identify obstacles and align on the way forward.

It would appear that white, black, yellow and red hat thinking is closely related to personality and an almost instinctive pattern of thinking. Green hat thinking requires some design thinking skills and an innovation mindset. However, blue hat thinking is hardly ever inherent or instinctive. It requires the development of deep listening and understanding skills, rigorous application of the directing meta skill and the ability to process masses of information and diverse opinions into a synthesised summary.

We suggest that leaders need to be exposed to the knowledge, skills and ability to apply the Directing meta skill and wear the blue hat. We report that we have experienced a critical shortage of this leadership thinking skill around boardroom tables. We offer this insight with our hat in our hand as our subjective experience and expert opinion.

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