Collaboration is Good

It is easy to be inspired by great collaborations: Lennon and McCartney, Jobs and Wozniak, the Apollo space program, the 1999 women's American national team.

Except When It's Hard

But for every successful outcome there are a thousand stories about how hard it can be to work with other people.
In fact, it's probably our deep appreciation for this fact that partly informs our sense of wonder when it does work out.

There's nothing easy about collaboration. It's hard..

What I mean by that is that it is not something that happens by default UNLESS something goes wrong. Quite the opposite: a lot of things have to go right for people to be able to combine their talents and insights and efforts and make something come of it.

And it's not just about working with teams. The challenge of getting human individuals to work effectively together for common goals is THE fundamental problem of human history and the study of how we solve it is pretty much the main problem of all the social sciences.

Collaboration is an Unnatural Act

One might say collaboration is an unnatural act

It's practically the first law of social physics: we cannot thrive without working together but left to our own devices we usually fail to do so. Thomas Hobbes famously said that the life without social order is nasty, brutish, and short which well it may be. The problem is that creating social order can itself be a nasty and costly ordeal.
Here's the problem graphically.

In this diagram the vertical dimension represents the benefit we get out of our actions. The horizontal dimension represents how far along the road to successful collaboration we are. The peak on the right says that eventually many hands make light work and by working together we get more bang for our effort than we could do on our own. But the valley in the middle says that it gets worse before it gets better, that working together is hard and that too many cooks can seem to spoil the broth before there is a payoff.

From our starting point over here on the left we can see where we want to be: the great beacon of collaborative bliss up there on the hill out yonder. But there is this forbidding valley we have to traverse and then a long hard climb if we are to get there.

The green arrow represents the benefit that motivates us but the red arrow represents the cost of organizing ourselves for collaboration and this is what discourages us from working together.

C'est la vie! Literally, this is the story of our lives and it has been for a long time.

The oldest examples are things like cooperating to hunt an animal that no individual could hunt alone or coordinating in growing crops so that one person concentrating on beans can trade with another who specializes in rice rather than everyone having have their own rice paddy and been patch.

Much of social science is the study of how to humans have come up with ways to make this valley less formidable. Let's look at that chart again.

The blue lines showing valleys that are less deep social institutions, forms of social organization, ways that humans have managed to reduce the discouragement from collaboration.

Generically these institutions are solutions to the problems of cooperation and coordination and communication.

These are the three big challenges of social life - just about everything we study in the social sciences is some version or combination of these:

  • coordination - how we arrive at stable expectations about one another's behavior
  • cooperation - how we get one another to suppress selfishness and contribute to group benefit
  • communication - how we transferring my mental content to yours

Another way to put this law is this: a posse is not something you just throw together, a posse is something you have to organize.

Now human beings have been at this for a very long time and they have come up with some basic forms of organization that they use over and over and over again.

The take-away point is that institutions are real pieces of social technology. Good social outcomes almost never emerge without some real investment in structuring interaction.

Here's another way to think about this: a posse is not something you just throw together, you have to organize it.

Markets, Hierarchy, and the Division of Labor

We do not have time to say much about these, but for most of human history the most effective form of organization we could muster was hierarchy. Hierarchy reaches its pinnacle in rational bureaucracy. The essence of bureaucracy is that each member has a position or role and for each role there is a set of qualifications and duties. A well designed bureaucracy is one of the most ferociously efficient machines humans have ever created.

But the efficiency frequently comes to a standstill when the team members have a meeting to put their head together, to engage in creative collaboration in which they try to get their creative minds to synch in such a way that they can generate solutions together that they could not alone.

Given our average experience in meetings it is surprising that the word "meeting" has not become urban slang for death, torture, or vomit. I would guess there are two reasons it has not. First, we are in denial. Second, we are ever hopeful, seduced as it were, by the glimmer of recognition of the promise of working with others. We see the occasional bit of brilliance that we know we could not have come up with alone and we realize that thinking together is one of our most powerful tools.

Consider this short play for 5 collaborators:


A: Since we are all here we can begin.
B: We need to plan the end of semester party.
C: I'm not happy about having to do it when we are so busy.
B: Let's make it potluck so it's less work.
D: We have to remember we have some vegetarians in the group.
C: We can't have it on the 12th because of the dorm events.
A: What if we did it, like, virtually, on line, ya' know?
B: Could it be at Brian's house?
C: Transportation and parking will be a problem.
B: I liked it when we had Panda catering for that lunch.
A: I'm feeling like we are getting off track.
C: A party should have a theme.
D: OK, listen up, here's our agenda: A why don't you figure out the venue and, B, why don't you and C get together and work out the food plan.
B: We should come up with a color scheme!
C: I'll take care of transportation.
A: But wouldn't it be neat if we all rode the metro?
B: I'd like that.
C: I don't really like public transport.
D: I have an idea for a logo.
E: I didn't get to have any input.

What do you make of this.

The Problem with Meetings

Not what makes them bad, but what's so bad about bad meetings?

They are a bad use of everyone's time. People are often right to think "I'd get more done" (or just be happier) if I were not here.

The are demoralizing. They build negative arousal around working with others.

Organizationally expensive.

They represent lots of missed opportunity.

And what makes them bad? Don't blame the meetings, they're just meetings. It's our fault.

Two Common Collaboration Paradigms : Collaboration as Argument vs. Collaboration as Hug

Collaboration as argument is fundamentally adversarial : in an effort to make best use of smart people meetings turn into contests over who is right and who is wrong, whose ideas count, whose idea that was. This form of working together implicitly endorses a sort of Darwinian struggle between ideas – a belief that the ones that survive will be the best ideas.

The logic of collaboration by argument implies incorrectly the idea that ideas are born fully grown. And it usually implies that the best advocate for an idea is its birth parent.

Pathologies include

  1. ideas from soft spoken people become soft spoken ideas.
  2. The free-er the thinker the more defeated they become because most of their ideas get trounced.
  3. Encourages participants to monopolize floor crowding out other options.
  4. In the struggle to survive ideas are often made to grow to maturity prematurely.
  5. Witnesses are forced to take sides before they have contributed and before they have had a chance to survey the possibility-scape.

Modeled somewhat on peer review in science. Test ideas out. Market-place of ideas. Very guy.

Collaboration as hug

Nice: in effort to make everyone count, feel welcome, and respected all contributions are treated equally, people are afraid to criticize, there are few incentives to be coherent or make sense, it's easy for people to inject feelings or politics at any point and then very difficult for others to respond to them, easy for folks to play ultimatum games, be subtly obstructionist, process can dominate to the point of getting nothing done. Very liberal.

The pathologies of CaH

  1. easily devoid of selection pressure
  2. reality often never gets a vote
  3. sequences turn into grab bags. logic out the window
  4. no one's ideas get better as a result.

Pathology of Hug and Argument

The adversarial mode assumes that all ideas are "ready for battle,” wears people down, bounces erratically, lands on ideas few may want.

The nice mode assumes that good ideas are easy to come by and that logic is irrelevant, tends to drift and go Frankenstein.

Parallel Thinking

Thinking about these extremetypes of collaboration or meeting helps us to appreciate that we are talking about an actual behavior. These represent styles of thinking, styles of interacting.

And what they are most notable for is a lack of alignment. People are not thinking the same way at the same time.

Participants engage in same kind of thinking at the same time
Direction can be changed by agreement.

What we are going to talk about is a discipline for collaborative interaction - meetings - developed by Edward de Bono. It's meant to be a technique for encouraging parallel thinking using the metaphor of putting on a hat. When we put on a hat of a particular color we are committed to engaging in a particular style of thinking and making a particular kind of contribution to the collaboration.

The idea is that we spend some time training ourselves to recognize the different kinds of thinking and contributions and then when we are working together we follow an agreed upon script or agenda in terms of what hat we will be wearing.

An important element of the method is that, in general, everyone at the meeting wears the same hat at any given time.

BLACK HATS are for criticism

We will talk about the black hat first because it is the one many of us wear when we think we are not wearing any hat at all. And the more academic training you have, the more this is true.

The black hat is for when we are being critical, playing devil's advocate, focusing on the negatives. There is a time for black hat talk, but it's best for the team if we save it for black hat time.

Wearing a black hat I can offer logical criticism, reasons why I think something will not work (cf. red). There is no requirement to be fair, balanced, or nice, but it is also not about purely emotional critiques ("I don't like it") - we will see in a moment that that's what the red hat is for.

This is when we point out errors in thinking, look for weakness in evidence, logical flaws in arguments. We ask fundamental questions: Is this even true? Why do we think this is true? How would we find out? What's the down side? What's the worst case scenario?

We take a risk averse stance and look for the downside and the risk and everything that could go wrong.

But the black hat is itself a risky proposition because it is way too easy. You should do a self assessment and if you are a natural black hat person make a self-conscious effort to put it on and off.

Stop and Think… Generate some black hat ideas around the following

  1. Your roommate wants to get a cat.
  2. Instead of a paper, your professor said you can make a short video.
  3. Santa Monica Beach!

RED HATS are for expression emotions

When I am wearing the RED hat I get to say how I feel about thing. Red comments are about emotions. The content can be feelings, emotions, intuitions. Red statements don't require explaining, justifying, or rationalizing. Others cannot disagree or contradict red statements.

Sometimes a facilitator may request focused red hat ideas and can say that there will be no passing: one can be positive, negative, neutral, mixed, confused, but one has to weigh in.

Red hat time can be used to surface first impressions, vague senses, "small feelings," especially at early stages with new ideas. It can be a useful way for participants to assess/admit why they are thinking along a particular line.

If I manage to admit that I am feeling uncomfortable because the idea we are talking about seems like it might only help wealthy people, it can help me to put that out there but still evaluate the idea on other merits rather than having them be coded ways of expressing my emotional response.

Red hats let you get pure hunches onto the whiteboard, things you have zero support for.

Having to admit you are wearing a red hat can keep authoritatively speaking opinionated folks from quashing other people's ideas with their "that's a bad idea!" which often is a short form of "I FEEL that I don't like that idea…."

Stop and Think… generate three honest red hat comments about

  1. Let's plan a weekend get away for the entire group.
  2. Pedestrian safety around skateboards

The RED and The Black

Confusion between what's a red hat comment and what's a black hat comment has derailed many a meeting. Perhaps the most common version of this is when gregarious extroverts engage in innocent red hat talk and the more timid introverts in the group think she is wearing a black hat. Her "I don't like coffee" gets heard as "Coffee is bad (it must be, I'm smart, I know these things, only a fool would disagree with me, are there any fools here, I didn't think so)" and so coffee is off the list. We see this a lot when team members have a wide range of, say, aesthetic experience. When the guy who knows a lot about film says he doesn't like a given film or "that film sucks" (by which he really means, in all likelihood, "with my red hat on, let me say that I felt that that film sucked") the rest of us feel like our license to say anything at all about the film just got yanked.

So that's what happens when an emotional statement is misunderstood or misrepresented as a critical one. Related to this is the question of whether participants in a conversation have a responsibility to back up their claims with reasons and evidence. When the black hat is on, we expect criticism to be analytical and evidence based and we demand this of one another. But we specifically do not do that when the red hat is on. We want participants wearing a red hat to be able to put their emotions out there AS emotions. We are admitting that emotions form part of the background for our work but we are bracketing them, recognizing them for what they are.


A YELLOW hat is for OPTIMISTIC IDEAS, especially those that build on something already on the table or under consideration.

Yellow contributions are optimistic but based in reason or evidence (not just "I like this" - that's red). They explore positives and probe for value.

With my yellow hat on I increase my sensitivity to seeing the value in ideas. I look for reasons it will work. This contrasts with black hat thinking where I try to poke holes and identify risks.

Another version of yellow hat thinking is to get at the idea behind the idea. Perhaps the idea of a 4 pm coffee hour for Academy staff and students doesn't sound good but the underlying idea of a regular all Academy social hour has some clear value.

With the yellow hat on I find myself saying, "OK, here's a way I can see this working and taking off…"

Yellow vs. Black: look for plusses vs. look for minuses
Yellow vs. Green: build on existing vs. expand the set.

New territory that has been created by green hat thinking can be explored with yellow hat thinking.

Stop and Think…

  1. Advantages of being tall? Short?
  2. In what ways would it be awesome if dogs could speak
  3. An app that tells you where all your friends are right now.

Green Hats are for Creative/Energetic/Inventive Talk

When the green hats come out the team is moving into creativity territory. Participants are asked to generate new ideas, options and alternatives.

Green as the color of "isn't, but maybe could be?"

Green is not a role played by some, it's a mode everyone has to participate in. The ideal situation is where people build off each other. I go one meter out of bounds and it makes you think of something that's two meters out of bounds. This is what we mean by "Movement, not judgment. Stepping stones."

Examples. In a project meeting in which we are thinking about how to approach the question "what will music consumption look like in ten years?" we might hear

  • Maybe we won't just be listening but making music with the artists…
  • It could place you into a hologram of the performance - air guitar becomes real…
  • Will it require any devices at all? Maybe just streamed to one's head.
  • Maybe we won't think of music as a separate category any more.
  • What if headphones were social - you could loop people in and you'd all hear same music and could talk to one another. Something like the car radio experience with everyone being able to pick the station.
  • What if private headphones became illegal or came to be seen as immoral?

Green hat thinking is oriented toward movement. Speakers are encouraged to build on one another, follow ideas out to the next level. Comments that throw ideas out that jar people into a new set of thoughts are particularly valuable.

The green hat provides protection for unreasonable ideas, ideas that contradict common sense. “Under green hat protection I want to suggest…”

You cannot just assign specific people the green hat role; Everybody has to be creative, not just the creative types.
“Let’s have some new ideas…”

Stop and Think… Consider the following scenarios and generate some green hat ideas.

  1. Higher education ten years from now.
  2. Coachella becomes a model for other things.


When the green hat is on we can engage in deliberate attempts to shake up our thinking. This can take the simple form of starting out our statements with "Suppose…" or "Imagine…"

Imagine there's no heaven | It's easy if you try |No hell below us |Above us only sky |Imagine all the people |Living for today…

Imagine there's no countries |It isn't hard to do |Nothing to kill or die for |And no religion too |Imagine all the people |Living life in peace…

You may say I'm a dreamer |But I'm not the only one |I hope someday you'll join us |And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions |I wonder if you can |No need for greed or hunger |A brotherhood of man |Imagine all the people |Sharing all the world…

You may say I'm a dreamer |But I'm not the only one |I hope someday you'll join us |And the world will live as one

Permission to put forward crazy ideas (PO = “provocation operation”)
Alternatives: contradict status quo or received wisdom


Green hat contributions expand the range of what's on the table.

The act of looking for value can also be a way to explore feasibility: OK, this idea is interesting, let's see if we can figure out how to make it work.


I put the white hat on when I have (Just) facts and figures to offer (without an argument). With white hats on, we speak with an awareness of the difference between observations and interpretations, between believed facts and checked facts.

The metric is whether the information is usable information for what's being talked about.

When does it happen? The agenda can call for us all to put on our white hats and answer the question: what do we know? And we can fit "what do we not know?" under this hat too. You can put on your own (I'd like to offer the following as factual information) or you can ask someone to put on (could someone walk us through the data as we know it?).

Stop and Think…

  1. You receive a box with a new pet inside, what do you need to know?
  2. You need to plan a meal but you can't go shopping.
  3. Let's talk about installing a pool in the back yard.
  4. What should I do about students texting and surfing during class?

BLUE HATS are for Process

When I am wearing the BLUE hat I talk about process. Meetings often begin with the blue hat: "here is our agenda, this is why we are here, here is how I'd like us to proceed." It can also be used to check in : are we on track? I thought we were going to try to reach a decision about X.

The blue hat can be worn when directing traffic, speeding things up or slowing things down.

One advantage of putting blue hats on now and again is that it lets folks not be distracted by process AND it prevents people from using process to derail things ("this is all well and good but we have a paper to turn in!").

NOTE: blue hat thinking can be useful at various points in the process (in a given meeting, for example)

At Start: what we we talking about today? What will be our hat sequence?
Middle: have we drifted?
End: what did we accomplish in each color?


Green + Yellow = crazy new ideas followed by let’s see what we can do with them.
Black + Green = identify problems and then generate novel solutions
Black + Yellow = identify problems and look for value in each
White + Red + Green + Yellow = set table, clear emotions, brainstorm, build on ideas

Meeting Structure: Use Hats to Structure the Agenda

A one hour meeting might be set up like this

BLUE Why are we here? How will we proceed?
WHITE (5 minutes) What do we know?
GREEN What sorts of things are possible
YELLOW What's good about these ideas?
BLACK Among those that look most promising, what are the potential pitfalls?
RED Are we worried about anything?
BLUE What did we achieve? What is the outcome? What does our design look like at this point?

Provocations and Sequences

A team can actually use the hats to build creativity exercises into its process. YELLOW + BLACK can be used to look at the pros and the cons in turn. BLACK + GREEN can be used to identify problems and then improve upon them.

What's the BIG IDEA

Big Ideas and Take Aways

Encounters benefit from structure. Explicit often better than implicit.

Structures that can promote self-awareness, self-policing, mutual monitoring, and provide a vocabulary for norms.

There are some problems that are effectively addressed by vertical, goal oriented thinking. We divide and conquer asking questions that divide the solution space in half.

de Bono calls it "lateral thinking" vs vertical - ever optimizing
Chae : lion in Sahara
continued generation

What is "lateral thinking" and what is it different from?

The phenomenological1 psychologist Erwin Straus has an essay called "The Forms of Spatiality" in which he investigates the human experience of the spatiality of space. Among other interesting distinctions he looks at the difference between acoustic space and visual space. Our experience of visual space involves turning toward and looking at objects which are further objectified by the act of looking at. By contrast, we experience sound as something that comes to us from its source. "[S]ound occupies and integrates space, reaches and seizes us, [and thus] it renders orientation and objectivation difficult." Sounds do not have a location, per se. We can look for the source, but that's not the sound thing. Contrary to colour, which remains attached to the object, sound has the ability to separate itself from its source and liberate itself from directional movements."2

Straus continues his analysis by making an analogy between the space of sound and the space of dance as contrasted with purposive movement. In the latter we move through space toward a goal, eliminating more and more spatial possibility as we home in on the goal. In dance, by contrast we are often not going anywhere and our goal is to fill the space of the dance, we mean to visit every point, coming at each one from a variety of trajectories.

These two diagrams represent trajectories through space. The one on the left shows how first responders zero in on the location of a fire in an research lab. The on on the right is the choreography for a French dance from 1700. What we should notice is that the first responders "waste" no time getting to the fire while the dancers do quite the opposite: they take what looks like the most inefficient path possible from the lower center of the diagram to the middle of the room where they end up. One can also imagine that their movements along the way involve lots of turn and looking around the room and perhaps at each other as well.

For a second example consider the skaters. They are all engaged in ostensibly similar activities (ice skating) in the same context (an ice rink) but they approach the space of the ice quite differently. The hockey player puts all his energy into, as Wayne Gretzky used to say, skating to where the puck is going to be. The figure skaters, on the other hand, are not trying to get anywhere - they purposely loop around and visit all the corners of the rink. And they use their bodies differently too. The hockey player is crouched down, his posture completely in service of the goal of getting to the puck faster. The figure skaters use their arms and legs to sweep through the space around them.

Options and Exercises

Exercise 1

Select a topic card - e.g., let's figure out where to go for lunch (as a group - all of us)


  1. Let's all go out for lunch after this session.
  2. The faculty has asked us to plan a field trip for visiting students.
  3. Meeting to discuss pedestrian safety, bikes, and skateboards on campus.
  4. How will young people be experiencing music in ten years?
  5. Dress code for school kids
  6. Being tall
  7. Box with new pet
  8. Bikeshare on campus
  9. TapinGo
  10. Quiet hours
  11. Chores sharing in group household

Over six minute period we will cycle through
Blue - Process
Green - Creative new ideas
Red - Emotion
White - Information
Yellow - Ideas, optimism, what's good about ideas
Black - Criticism

Exercise 2

Select a topic card and then select a hat card.

Topic Cards

  1. Where should we go for lunch?
  2. Let's plan a weekend escape.
  3. We need to come up with a group Halloween costume.
  4. What can you cook with X, Y, and Z?
  5. The faculty want US to plan a field trip for the visiting students.
  6. How can we cut down on students surfing internet during class so that teachers don't ban laptops?
  7. No one obeys the bike and skateboard directions on walking paths on campus. What can be done?

Exercise 3

We've got this great idea. Should we start a company?

Let's put on the White Hat first and ask what we know. How many hours have we put into this already? What is each of us doing in our "day job"? What is the best and worst case timelines for this project? Let's also admit that we have no idea what our "company" options really are.

With Red Hat thinking we each talk about our hopes and fears. What irrational things make us want to jump in or off?

When we think with the Black Hat, we consider that the tail may wag the dog, why don't we focus on the product? We worry that the lawyers will eat up all the funds. We have seen friends stop being friends. We don't think we need formal structure yet. On the other hand, no one takes us seriously without it.

With Green Hat thinking we throw up several scenarios including a few different types of incorporation.

With the Yellow Hat we look at the possibilities that light up when we think about each of the options we've put on the table with our green hats.

A Blue Hat intervention got us to move among the different thinking styles - we were stuck in red at one point - and a few times people had to be reminded what hat we were operating under.

Sources and References

"Six Thinking Hats" Slideshare Deck by nathanr07
debono "Six Hat Thinking for Schools" Six Thinking Hats Card Game


Add a New Comment