The Six Thinking Hats for Establishing Requirements

The quality of a set of requirements very much depends on the quality of the thinking that went into them. The person responsible for establishing the requirements needs to maximise the quality of the thinking of all stakeholders, as well as their own thinking.

Some time ago I read the book Six Thinking Hats by Dr. Edward de Bono and was struck at how well this thinking and questioning approach could be applied to software requirements.  Wikipedia’s definition is:

“Six Thinking Hats… is a thinking tool for group discussion and individual thinking. Combined with the idea of parallel thinking which is associated with it, it provides a means for groups to think together more effectively, and a means to plan thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive way.”

If you have ever played devil’s advocate in a discussion to help explore another angle then you have already come very close to wearing at least one of the six hats. Likewise, if you have looked on the black-side, brainstormed possible alternatives or simply looked on the bright-side.

The donning of a particular hat is a metaphor for adopting a particular stance or state with respect to a situation. What’s more, each person in the discussion adopts the same hat at the same time resulting in what De Bono calls Parallel Thinking. This avoids individuals holding tightly to their preferred stance in relation to a situation or in relation to others, especially where egos come into play. For example, this is of great benefit when one person feels uncomfortable exploring the negatives or feels the need to take up a contrary position to someone they perceive as competition.

So let’s look at each of the Six Thinking Hats and see how they can be used when thinking about requirements and when speaking with stakeholders, either in 1-2-1 interviews or requirements workshops with multiple stakeholders. Each hat is illuminated by a few example questions.

The White Thinking Hat

The White Hat is about cold, hard facts.

  • What data is available?
  • Is there some desk research to be done?
  • How did we get to this point, what is the back story?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system?
  • Ask What, Why, Where, When, Who, How?
  • What are the knowns?
  • What are the known unknowns?
  • What are the unknown unknowns?
  • What are the unknown knowns?

The Black Thinking Hat

The Black Hat is about exploring negative consequences and what may be at fault.

  • What are the likely causes of project failure?
  • What are the unhappy scenarios?
  • What did the pervious project fail to deliver?

The Yellow Thinking Hat

The Yellow Hat is about the benefits and best possible outcomes.

  • What are the longer-term benefits?
  • What are the potential spin-off benefits?
  • What are the positives we can take from experience on previous projects?

The Green Thinking Hat

The Green Hat is about provoking new ideas, creative thinking and being innovative.

  • Has the stakeholder considered other alternatives?
  • Is there an alternative that could eclipse the competition?
  • What is the scope for product innovation?

The Red Thinking Hat

The Red Hat is about emotion and gut feeling.

  • How does the stakeholder feel about the project?
  • What does the stakeholder like about the existing product?
  • What does the stakeholder dislike about the existing product?

The Blue Thinking Hat

The Blue Hat is about stepping back and looking at the big picture.

  • Am I approaching this project in the right way?
  • Is the overall business case sound?
  • What is the roadmap of the product and how does it fit into the product suite?
  • Are there industry regulations and/or standards that need considering?


The Six Thinking Hats is an effective method fir helping to cover all of the bases when exploring and defining requirements. It provides a more holistic view and encourages stakeholders to open up, debate and share their opinions from points of view they may otherwise have not considered or intentionally avoided.

Note that it is your choice whether you explicitly refer to the donning of hats or whether you simply ask the stakeholders to focus on one aspect at a time, for example: “First I’d like to focus on establishing as many facts as possible.” (White Hat). “How do you feel about the project and its chances of success?” (Red Hat). Your own judgement and previous experience with the stakeholders will determine the best approach.

Happy hat wearing!


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