Information Analysis: It’s All a Matter of Perspective

elephant177402Information gathering and analysis are core skills for project managers and project teams. We have to gather requirements, uncover expectations, understand and evaluate change requests, identify risks, and establish estimates, and so it goes throughout every project life cycle.

How can we gather and analyze information better? A plethora of tools and techniques abound, but sometimes old school is still the best choice.

To give context and set up a description of a specific technique, let’s consider the basic, obvious lesson of the blind men and the elephant parable. In a nutshell, several blind men approach and touch an elephant so that they can “see” what an elephant is like. After examining the elephant, the blind men discuss their observations.

One describes the elephant as a pot, another as a winnowing basket, another as a pillar, and so on, resulting in much conflict over their different conclusions. In the Buddhist version, the Buddha explains the meaning of the parable with a verse that concludes:

For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

Clearly each blind man was correct in his description of the elephant based on his experience, but none of them had a complete and accurate understanding due to their limited perspectives.

The Johari Window, a simple model for understanding and describing human interaction developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, further illuminates this parable. When viewed in terms of individual knowledge, the model clearly illustrates the limitations of depending on our explicit knowledge.

Johari Window

As with the blind men, our explicit knowledge gives us insight only into those things we have directly experienced, documented, and stored. Though frequently the most comfortable place from which to operate, depending on explicit knowledge limits our perspective, resulting in conclusions biased by what we don’t know. We can mitigate this bias by intentionally and actively seeking to expand our perspective through sharing information with others and seeking feedback from others.

Back in 1985, Edward de Bono suggested a very effective technique in his book Six Thinking Hats. This technique specifically addresses the challenges of expanding perspectives with the goal of providing a thorough and well-rounded examination of the idea, question, issue, or problem. Basically, de Bono defines six different perspectives—or thinking hats—from which any subject can be examined.

The intentional separation of perspectives in the examination of a subject enables us to narrow and focus our thinking. As we apply each perspective, we accumulate and expand what we know.

De Bono’s six perspectives (thinking hats):
White Hat: objective, examines facts and figures
Red Hat: emotional, conveys fears, likes, and dislikes
Black Hat: pessimistic, identifies weaknesses and problems, “devil’s advocate”
Yellow Hat: positive, optimistic, identifies strengths and opportunities
Green Hat: creative, generates new ideas
Blue Hat: controlling, organizational, process focused

We can use the hats to structure our thinking about something by intentionally examining it from each of the perspectives on a progressive basis, disciplining ourselves to use only one hat at a time. Perhaps most helpful for working with our teams and stakeholders is the technique’s ability to bring structure to a group’s examination of an idea.

Here are a few pointers when using de Bono’s thinking hats technique:

  1. When using the technique with a group, start with the Blue Hat to establish how the technique will be used and, if several hats will be used in sequence, what the sequence will be.
  2. Once the ground rules have been established and agreed upon via Blue Hat thinking, move to the White Hat. The White Hat requires everyone to focus on identifying what is known for certain: “the facts ma’am, just the facts.”
  3. Once the facts are established, it is useful to give everyone the opportunity to emotionally vent—that is, to share their gut reactions. This is Red Hat thinking, and while very valuable, it should be carefully controlled as simply a chance to react, not to evaluate or analyze those reactions.
  4. The Black Hat focuses on identifying the problems or weaknesses in a subject. This negative focus enables the group to identify the gaps, challenges, threat risks, and problems.
  5. It is often helpful to keep the Black Hat and Yellow Hat paired, using the Yellow Hat to examine the subject more positively. The Yellow Hat helps to identify the opportunity risks, optimistic characteristics, and positive aspects of the subject.
  6. Next, of course, is the Green Hat. Use it to generate and explore new and creative ways to exploit the positives and problem-solve the negatives.
  7. Finally, come back to the Blue Hat, using it to focus thinking on how to integrate and synthesize all of the perspectives and points made. In the Six Thinking Hats, de Bono says the final Blue Hat “…indicates what we have achieved, outcome, conclusion, design, solution, and next steps.”

Brainstorming, Delphi technique, mind mapping, and Crawford slip are just a few of the common information-gathering techniques we commonly use with our teams and stakeholders throughout our projects. The challenge we face with these and most other techniques is that they gather information from the audience’s natural, comfortable thinking style. The strength of de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats technique is that it moves us around the elephant, expanding our perspectives through both direct and collaborative experience.

The Six Thinking Hats technique enables us to collectively expand our explicit knowledge and, thereby, perform better analysis and make better decisions.

Has your group used the Six Thinking Hats technique? Did you find it helpful?

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