Complex business issues are often multifaceted and difficult to assess. This complexity is compounded when different people adopt different perspectives at the same time and discuss cross-purposes, from different points of view, when adopting the same perspective would produce greater mutual understanding and reveal legitimate differences.
Creativity researcher Edward de Bono proposes a systematic approach to considering problems that allows a group to share perspectives and therefore assess complex problems more quickly and fully. Energy that would otherwise be spent miscommunicating is directed toward legitimate differences of opinion and profitable decision-making.
States and Treaties
“I am a positive person.”
“Vivek can be very negative at times.”
“Alexa is so distant, it’s like her head is in the clouds.”
We’ve all heard statements like these about other people. Perhaps we have made them on ourselves. But the truth is that we are more versatile than these simple characterizations suggest.
Given the remarkable human capacity for perspective taking, people can control which perspective they take on a problem. This ability to examine issues from different angles is highlighted in high school debate: teams advocate for their assigned issue regardless of their actual underlying beliefs. None of us may have the mental discipline to adopt a certain perspective at will, but with the help of an experienced facilitator it is not difficult to follow their lead and experience their “frame of reference.”
The truth is that we are positive towards certain things and negative towards others. We are emotional at certain times and intellectual at others. It is helpful to recognize that most experiences emerge as short-lived experiences. state, in which we respond positively or negatively, intellectually or emotionally. Contrast this opposite of permanent and long-lasting. features, in which a person is “always negative” or “is so emotional.”
Therefore, it is much more meaningful to say, “I can see something positively or negatively, objectively or subjectively. I can describe my own emotional response to something.” Experiencing a problem from different perspectives gives us the opportunity to paint a fuller picture of the factors at play. We can use the fact that we are able to take different frames of reference to our advantage when weighing complex problems.
Taking different perspectives
Discussing a topic from different perspectives all too often leads to a miscommunication between purposes. It is more profitable to consider the facets of a thorny issue together, so that legitimate differences of judgment can be assessed collectively rather than escalate into adversarial and self-serving hostility.
De Bono identifies six perspectives* that can be examined together to lessen such miscommunication. Perspectives are color coded for easy reference.
Consider the scenario of a new order management system that is behind schedule.
White: Facts. White perspective focuses on the facts of the problem Think of a piece of paper covered in data. Examples include:
- We are two months late and estimate another month to complete.
- Customers have been complaining about the old system since February.
- If we change providers now, we will lose $500,000 and three months of work.
By reporting “just the facts” we avoid unnecessary condemnation, criticism and frustration. Often when we share the hard facts, we find information gaps that need to be reconciled before we have enough information to make sound decisions.
Red: Feelings. The red perspective recognizes the emotions associated with a problem. Think about the blood that runs through your heart or your guts as you respond viscerally. Examples include:
- I hate when we roll out production updates, something always goes wrong.
- Sharma will feel threatened if we change providers, as she involved these people in the deal.
- Customers will love the new system! I am so excited to announce it!
By acknowledging our own feelings and acknowledging the feelings of others, we incorporate that immediate gut response into our decision-making process rather than denying the emotionality of an issue, only to be surprised when our change initiative stalls and sabotages.
Black: Negative. Black perspective accounts for all bad things associated with a problem. Think of the bad boy in a western. Examples include:
- If we don’t finish this on time, we’ll lose thousands every day.
- We don’t have enough staff to work with a new provider.
- The new system is too difficult to manage. Furthermore, most of the clients are used to the old system.
By identifying potential problems, dangers, risks, and cost overruns, we can plan accordingly without unnecessary frustration or guilt. At the same time, resist the temptation to “fix” problems at this stage. Black perspective allows for a full examination of the downside of a problem. This is similar to naming a Devil’s lawyer to offset groupthink.
Yellow: Positive. The yellow perspective emphasizes all the good things associated with a problem. Think of a ray of sunlight. Examples include:
- The new system will be much easier for new customers to use, which will increase the number of orders they place with us.
- Because it is best in class, we are able to hire experts to run the system instead of training them.
- After two years, the monthly savings more than offset the current cost of the upgrade.
With the focus on benefits, savings and perks, a renewed sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the topic can emerge. In addition, a positive orientation reminds the participants that their effort is not in vain. The item under consideration promises some benefit to the organization.
Green: Growth potential. The green perspective provides the opportunity to observe the creative possibilities that arises from a problem. Think of the grass that sprouts from a seed. Examples include:
- The new provider also handles inventory so we can consolidate all of our logistics services.
- With a little ingenuity, I bet we could provide our customers with online order status.
- Nothing prevents us from conducting a customer satisfaction survey once our orders are shipped. That feedback could help refine the ordering and shipping process as we move forward.
By considering areas of growth, creativity and innovation are systematically encouraged and even more opportunities to capitalize on a situation can be discovered. Solving a complex problem is usually not an end in itself, but opens the door to improved products and services.
Blue: The big picture. The blue perspective keeps the focus on the General objective be addressed considering the problem. Think of the vast sky that contains all other perspectives. Examples include:
- I appreciate your skepticism about the implementation, but let’s focus on the benefits at this (yellow) stage.
- I have not heard a single objection. Who can think of some negative (black) factors?
- How do you expect the competition to respond? (white)
By keeping the big picture in mind, the group stays task oriented and productive. This perspective is usually held by the group facilitator, and may be brought up by group members when digressions or tangents bog down the discussion.
Remember that these six perspectives (called “thinking hats” by de Bono, since we can change perspective as easily as putting on or taking off a hat) together provide a framework for groups to see a problem from a shared perspective, as we move from one perspective to the next, making sure to cover the salient factors that affect complex issues. While managerial judgment is still required to determine the best course of action, the core problems of miscommunication and one-dimensional analysis can be eliminated using this approach.
* From Edward de Bono, “Six thinking hats.” (1985)