The Black Hat and Critical Thinking


An excellent tool for decision-making, problem solving, new idea generation, or effective meetings is The Six Thinking Hats (Hats). Developed by Dr. Edward de Bono, the Hats are the cornerstone of de Bono’s parallel thinking theory: separate thinking to ensure participants work in parallel (together) to achieve the optimal solution.


The Hats are imaginary “thinking hats” that strive to separate thinking to avoid argument and develop issues more thoroughly. Each hat represents a specific thinking role, ensuring participants focus on one role at a time. The following is each hat’s focus.

Blue hat — facilitator

White hat — data and information

Red hat — emotions, feelings, intuition

Yellow hat — benefits, values, feasibility

Black hat — concerns, cautions, problems

Green hat — creative ideas, alternatives, possibilities

Parallel thinking and the Hats are designed to ensure each area of focus for a topic or problem is discussed individually, then the group moves to the next area of focus until the topic is analyzed thoroughly. For example, the group only discusses the white hat, what data and information is available, and then move to the red hat, only discussing emotions or feelings. The group does not jump back-and-forth between different hats. The group stays on one hat, and then moves on; leveraging focus and discipline.

The black hat is the driver for critical thinking within the Hats. The black hat is not negative. It is about ensuring a topic or problem is properly dissected. As any critical thinker knows, it is essential to dissect the evidence and recommendations of arguments to ensure nothing is missed and the best idea is developed. Too often, someone brings up an idea and the resident “dark cloud” immediately starts picking it apart. This is often why the black hat gets a bad rap as being the negative hat, it’s not.

Black hat negative

I see this too often with those who use critical thinking without tact. Most decisions are based on emotions and supported with biases and assumptions. When using critical thinking to analyze an idea or decision, it is recommended to let the group know a specific time for critical analysis is needed. Let the group know, “it’s time for some black hat thinking”. Then, the group is ready for questions and dissection of the argument to ensure it is based on strong evidence to proceed. This method will reduce any tension or defensiveness.


You should also initiate black hat thinking when presenting your own ideas. Encourage the team to conduct some “black hat thinking” on your proposal. This will demonstrate to the group the need for critical thinking, especially with your own ideas. This activity will demonstrate to team members that everyone’s ideas must be critically analyzed – our own and other team members. In relation to creative thinking, the black hat is a vital part of green hat ideas.


Creative thinking and critical thinking work in tandem. Creative thinking (green hat) is used to expand, move forward, and focus on the generation of ideas; divergent thinking. Critical thinking (black hat) comes into play to narrow the list of ideas and determine those with the highest probability of success; convergent thinking. Unfortunately, too often people feel black hat activities focus on “killing” good ideas and being negative. What the black hat is designed to do is analyze and question ideas, decisions, or solutions. The black hat is crucial to ensuring nothing is missed or identify potential problems not previously noted.

Black hat reality

The strength of the Hats is forcing team members to analyze a topic holistically. Those who are against the idea, must come up with positive aspects (yellow hat), while those who love the idea must identify possible problems or concerns (black hat). The power of the black hat is to impart skepticism and a reality check (and devil’s advocate) into the discussion in a positive way. Practicing critical thinking skills as black hat exercises develops a team’s capacity to accept questioning and analysis of all ideas for the betterment of the organization.


Musings From Russia

I just got back from a great trip to Russia (St. Petersburg and Moscow). I highly recommend going. Great people, food, and amazing history. Very clean, excellent transportation, and a feeling of relative safety. Let’s ignore the current news topics, for now. From a business perspective, it was very interesting to see what’s happening within our “arch-enemy’s” territory.


First-off, all of our terrible American fads are already over there. Fidget spinners and vape pens are everywhere. Yes, the Russians love cigarettes, but seeing vape pens is one export we should not be proud of (ok, I’m not sure where these started, but …. ). Fidget spinners are in every shop and seeing adults using these on trains makes me want to toss them out the windows (yes, the windows are open in the subways – it gets damn crowded and hot down there).


And yes, there are Russian hipsters all over the place. Sorry hipsters, but your painfully complicated mustaches and beards are just too much work. Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole cool factors of clothing and coffee, but it is a crack-up seeing them walking around the Kremlin.


Talking about coffee, it is everywhere (thank god!). The coffee craze kicked-off a few years ago and is going strong. Yes, Starbucks is everywhere, but so are local coffee chains and small cafes. It is an eye-opener seeing small kiosks with $50,000 espresso makers. I hope it lasts for these small businesses. What is lame is seeing many kiosks using regular pod coffee makers and charging a few bucks for a cup of coffee. No thanks. What’s the differentiator there? Get creative.

Moscow coffee

High-end barber shops are also popping up. I guess these are for the hipster community, but please, we don’t need $50 hair and beard cutting services. (yes, I guess I’m becoming a grumpy old man). And to add to over-priced things, high-end gourmet burgers are moving in. Yes, we all need good hamburgers and not the typical fast-food crap. But $15 burgers? Really? Please stop. Hey, if there is a market, go for it. But will it stop or will we only have $15 burgers in the future?


Two other great fads/trends are appearing; food trucks and Vietnamese pho. I had an amazing hamburger from a couple of guys in a fancy truck – luckily the burger only cost $5. And going through Vietnamese iced coffee detox was not needed as I found great pho shops in Helsinki and Moscow. If you haven’t tried Vietnamese soup (pho) and the addictive Vietnamese iced coffee, please get on Yelp, find a shop, and try it. These are good things spreading around the world!

Iced coffee

Sure, the whole culture experience can be diluted with the expansion of Western trends, but hey, the world is supposedly flat, so you might as well enjoy it. Trust me, the Russians I met and watched are not becoming Americanized anytime soon. They are very Russian – not sure what that means, but you know it when you see it. Just like Americans stick out like a sore thumb around the world, you know a Russian when you see one. The experience was amazing and the people were great.


As business pros we need to see how others do it. To create new products requires new perspectives. The way to develop new, creative ideas is to experience new things. The best way to get new experiences is to travel. Be it a new city or state, or a new country, go! Learning how a country runs its trains, the types of cars on the streets, or simply what the locals eat, opens up your mind and can spark great ,new ideas.


So update your passport and hit the road. Don’t listen to the news stories or be afraid of what people warn you about. Be smart and do your homework, and enjoy life. We only live once so go live it! Travel, learn, and create innovative solutions for your customers.

Sun Tzu and The Art of War

Art of War

Most of us have heard about the book The Art of War – or maybe it’s even on your bookshelf. Chinese General Sun Tzu is the reported author. I say reported because everything about him is not clearly identified in history – there is a lot of ambiguity of who he was – no one knows for sure who wrote the book, or who Sun Tzu really was. But for simplicity, Sun Tzu was a Chinese general who lived around 400 BC.

The Art of War is a treatise on military strategy that contains 13 chapters.

  1. Laying plans
  2. Waging war
  3. Attack by stratagem
  4. Tactical dispositions
  5. Energy
  6. Weak points and strong
  7. Maneuvering
  8. Variation in tactics
  9. Army on the march
  10. Terrain
  11. The nine situations
  12. The attack by fire
  13. The use of spies

The book outlines key areas on the philosophy of war. It presents guidelines to control conflict and defeat an opponent in battle. It has been translated in hundreds of languages and is the de facto Bible of strategy. Sun Tzu outlined five essential learnings for victory:

  1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight
  2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces
  3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks
  4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared
  5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign


A famous story about Sun Tzu is when the King of Wu gave him a test. To test his abilities as a general, the King challenged him to command his harem of concubines. The King wanted to see Sun Tzu’s abilities in leadership. Sun Tzu organized the concubines and made the King’s two most favorite the commanders of the group. Then, Sun Tzu ordered them to turn left, the concubines laughed. He ordered them again and again they laughed.

Sun Tzu informed the King that leadership and the actions of the army is the general’s responsibility. Since Sun Tzu was the acting general, he ordered the two favorite concubines beheaded for not obeying the orders. The King tried to intervene, but Sun Tzu executed them.


He then assigned two more concubines as company commanders and all the concubines quickly obeyed his orders. He told the King that since he was appointed the general, it was his responsibility to carry out the King’s orders. Though the King was deeply upset by the death of his favorite concubines, he realized the ability of Sun Tzu and let him lead his armies to many victories. This example showed how serious Sun Tzu was with the aspect of leadership and achieving objectives.

The majority of military practitioners and leaders have studied The Art of War. It has been used by many historical military figures such as Napoleon and also for many successful guerilla campaigns such as Mao Tse Tung and General Giap during the Vietnam War. The lessons learned have been applied in many battles. The teachings have also been referenced for business and politics.


In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas’ character referenced the book as he taught Charlie Sheen’s character, quoting the phrase, “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought”. So how can business leaders utilize Sun Tzu’s teachings? First, read The Art of War and read it again. Take your time, read it carefully and think about it. It is written simply, it’s easy-to-read, but has deep meanings and multiple ways of interpretation. There are many ways to use the teachings in every area of the organization.


Some key areas that can be used in business are:

  1. Laying plans
  2. Waging war (Protracted Campaigns are Doomed)
  3. Attack by stratagem (Know your enemy and yourself)
  4. Weak points and strong
  5. Terrain
  6. The use of spies (Use deception)

Laying plans can be directly applied to business. This section focuses on the commander and his method of leadership. A strong commander is sincere, honest, ethical, and courageous. Within businesses a strong leader is critical to the success of the organization. An example of poor leadership negatively affecting the organization is the current issues with Uber. Former CEO Travis Kalanick and executive leadership’s ongoing poor behavior, sexual harassment issues, and overall immature actions have provided an opening for competitor Lyft and ongoing backlash from the public and customers. After months of ongoing issues, Kalanick finally resigned on June 21 due to ongoing pressure from investors and Uber’s lagging performance. Sun Tzu noted five areas that weaken leaders. These will result in decline as seen by Uber and Kalanick.

  1. Recklessness
  2. Cowardice
  3. Hasty temper
  4. Sensitive to shame
  5. Too close to his men


The waging war section notes the danger of protracted campaigns. In terms of military actions, protracted campaigns waste resources, destroy morale, and are doomed to failure. Military examples of doomed protracted campaigns were the Vietnam War and the current Afghanistan War. Within business prolonged campaigns can result in devastating financial situations and potential bankruptcy. For example, the famous Honda-Yamaha War of the 1980s resulted in heavy losses and large stockpiles of inventories for Yamaha as the company could not maintain the sustained and ferocious pace against the stronger and more aggressive Honda.


The attack by stratagem section is famous for the importance of knowing your enemy and yourself to win battles. A key for any military or business is a strong understanding of the market environment, customers, competitors, the internal organization, etc. A painful lesson for the U.S. is the limited understanding of the results of invading Iraq and the aftermath of all combatants. Similarly in business, U.S. auto manufacturers ignored the Japanese auto manufacturers as they slowly built market share through a deep understanding of customers and improved product quality. The Japanese auto manufacturers are now experiencing a similar fate from Korean and soon-to-be Chinese competitors.


Another business example is Southwest Airlines. The company clearly understood the large airlines and their business models. Southwest realized key advantages to compete against the incumbents were lower prices and faster turnaround of planes. Operating in smaller markets, using one model of airplane, and relentlessly training crews, the company was able to out-flank the incumbents with lower prices and quick turnarounds to attract short distant business travelers.


Sun Tzu focused heavily on the importance on understanding weak and strong points. Attacking an enemy that is stronger head-on, is a sure way to lose. You must avoid attacking a stronger opponent directly. It is better to hit the flanks or rear of a stronger opponent. Wal-Mart is an example within business for avoiding strengths and attacking weaknesses. Wal-Mart avoided large towns and major retailers like K-Mart, Sears, and Woolworth. The company focused on small, rural towns to build strength, resources, and customer loyalty. It was not until the company had the size and resources to properly attack the large national brands that they entered major markets and successfully defeated the incumbents.


The terrain section is critical for armies as the need to understand where and how to attack or engage an enemy is vital for military success. Dependent on the terrain will determine an army’s approach and use of resources, etc. Within business, the terrain is physical and mental. The physical market environment of retail stores, online presence, or geographic locations. The mental side is in the consumer’s mind. Understanding what consumers need, want, and which companies they feel are market leaders, etc. Business leaders need to understand the physical and mental market terrains.

The use of spies section focuses on deception. Deception is critical in military and business. A classic example was during the planning for the Normandy invasion in WWII. Hitler was focused on General Patton and had his spies watching him closely. The allied forces convinced Patton to stay in England to deceive the Germans that his army was planning to invade Calais, not Normandy. The allies built dummy aircraft, airfields, and buildings. In addition, false messages were continually sent and the use of double-agents to mislead the Germans on the actual invasion site. This deception caused the Germans to spread out their forces and not focus on Normandy, mainly focusing on Calais resulting in a critical victory for the Allies.


Any business leader must become familiar with The Art of War. A leader needs to develop an agile organization similar to the shuai-jan snake. Organizations need to act like the shuai-jan; when the tail is attacked the head strikes, when the head is attacked, the tail is attacks, when the body is attacked, the head and tail strike. Proper planning and a deep and thorough knowledge of yourself, your competitors, customers, and the market environment is critical for long-term success. The learnings from Sun Tzu are critical for military and business success.

Sun Tzu focused on the importance of defeating the enemy before battle. He noted that planning and proper use of information and tactics can lead to victory with minimal conflict, the ultimate goal for victory. During the Iraqi War in 1991 (Operation Desert Storm), General Schwarzkopf and his U.S. forces used maneuver strategy (based heavily on Sun Tzu’s teachings) to invade Iraq. The allies bombed Iraqi forces for six weeks, and then the Marines engaged the Republican Guard, deceiving the Iraqis that this was the main attack. This feint allowed the allies to conduct a land invasion with minimal casualties and a complete defeat of the Iraqi army in approximately 100 hours.

Man 2

Similarly, General MacArthur surprised the North Koreans by invading Korea via Inchon through the hazardous mud flats in 1950. MacArthur’s detailed planning and knowledge of the environment resulted in a fast and unexpected victory with minimal casualties. Similarly to the Iraqi War, the allies used aerial bombings to weaken and distract the Koreans, then landed in the most unexpected location.


A similar use of defeating an enemy without battle is Polaris Industries dominating the off-road four-wheel vehicle segment against the incumbent Japanese manufacturers (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha). Polaris found a white-space in the U.S. powersports industry that the Japanese were avoiding. Customers wanted high speed, long wheel travel suspension vehicles. The conservative Japanese avoided the high-speed off-road market due to fears of the U.S. government intervening. Polaris took the risk resulting in decades of strong growth, share price moving from under $20 to over $100, and approximately 70% market share.


The goal of business success is to put the organization beyond the possibility of defeat and then wait for an opportunity to defeat the enemy. Business is not war. In war, it is typically one opponent against another, involving killing, in a relatively short time period. In business, there are typically multiple competitors, no one gets physically hurt, and the battles continue for long periods of time – the same main competitors battling one another. Study Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and apply the learning to differentiate your organization and dominate you market.