Avoid Preventable Disasters at Work

The Piper Alpha oil rig catastrophe could arguably be the world’s most terrible off-shore oil disaster, and tragically, a preventable one. Nearly two hundred workers were killed. Damages totalled $3.4 billion. There are several other well-known, probably preventable disasters: the Titanic, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez, to name just a few.

 Avoid Preventable Disasters with the ‘Six Thinking Hats’

Communication is often fraught with mistakes which can lead to consequences of varying severities. When working on our projects and on our initiatives, in our excitement we often forget to ask the ‘black hat questions’ – one of the ‘six thinking hats’ questions devised by Edward de Bono and used by corporations worldwide. The six thinking hats are time-tested strategies that enhance creativity. De Bono’s hats offer a good framework to help focus and broaden thinking by isolating the elements of thinking: the white hat focuses on obtaining data and information, the yellow hat focuses on identifying key benefits, the black hat – which we will come back to later – identifies risk and encourages caution, the green hat looks for creativity, the red had invites ‘gut instinct’ and the blue hat focuses on process.

 Use ‘Black Hat Thinking’ to Prevent Problems

Black hat questions identify reasons to be cautious and conservative.  They focus on arguments and criticism.  Black hat thinking looks for faults and ‘scans’ for potential problems, asking the ‘what ifs’ of a project. The black hat is the ‘devil’s advocate’.  Example black hat questions include:

  •          What would cause this project to fail?
  •          What if the staff don’t cooperate?
  •          What if clients say no?
  •          Who will make or break this project?
  •          How can you ensure every item is checked?
  •          Who might rebel against this?
  •          What are the facts?
  •          What are the legal questions we need to ask?
  •          How do you know these facts are correct?

 How to Apply Black Hat Thinking

To apply black hat thinking, it’s important to remain cautious and careful. Be logically negative – focus on why a proposal will not work. Use your critical judgement, and take a pessimistic view. Although this may feel uncomfortable, it is really important to unearth all the possible pitfalls in your project before you get to the ‘bells and whistles’ part. Refuse to be drawn into anything emotional – black hat thinking is resolutely clinical. Focus instead on errors, evidence, facts and risks. This is a truthful and logical approach, though it may not be viewed by your more enthusiastic colleagues as ‘fair’.

 The Benefits of Black Hat Thinking

Black hat thinking encourages you to use your imagination to generate alternatives or possibilities. These are often more effective than your original ideas because they account for the ‘what ifs’ of a situation. The black hat thinker will point out the risks, dangers or faults in a process. Black hat thinking also generates alternative facts that were not originally considered, which can add greater substance to a proposal. When you use this form of thinking, you may discover how something does not fit experience or received wisdom.  

 Black hat thinking is valuable because it chiefly focuses on negative assessment. Once you’ve identified all the potential problems, then you can begin to eliminate them.


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