Make meetings productive

Have you ever left a meeting thinking, “What a waste of time”? In the teaching profession, there are countless meetings that one needs to attend. What can be done to make meetings worthwhile and, crucially, ensure that decisions taken are sound and wise?

Edward de Bono, a world-famous authority on thinking skills, advises thousands of businesses and corporations on how to have worthwhile meetings.

The meetings are characterised by outstanding participation and decision-making. De Bono states in his book, Six Thinking Hats, that people need to think about issues from six different perspectives.

He advises that, during the course of a meeting, everyone should figuratively put on six differently coloured thinking hats. The colours suggest different ways of thinking.

De Bono’s six thinking hats

  • White hat: Data, facts, figures, information known or needed;

  • Red hat: Emotions, feelings, hunches, gut instinct;

  • Black hat: Critical judgment, pessimism, negative thinking;

  • Yellow hat: Benefits, optimism, positive thinking;

  • Green hat: Alternatives, change, creative and lateral thinking; and

  • Blue hat: Discipline and focus, controlling and monitoring.

At different stages of a meeting, the chairman (used for both genders) could ask everyone to figuratively put on a particular coloured thinking hat.

White-hat thinking
White-hat thinking is about being neutral. Like a computer, a person collects data and information without expressing an opinion. Information will help later to make the right decision.

De Bono makes the distinction between first and second class facts. First-class facts are indisputable, such as the excellent results of a school in the grade 12 examinations. Second-class facts are those that are thought to be true but are an interpretation of facts. So, the viewpoint that the grade 12s did so well because they had Saturday-morning classes is a second-class fact.

Red-hat thinking
Red-hat thinking welcomes your emotions and feelings. Imagine that you’re a member of a selection panel for a staff appointment. You have a hunch or gut feeling about a candidate. Your hunch can help make others aware. Discussions will either support or refute your viewpoint. Red-hat thinking reminds us that the best decisions aren’t always based solely on pure logic.

Black-hat thinking
No matter how good a new idea is, there’s a virtual guarantee that it’s not 100% perfect. The people putting forward the idea can often gloss over its imperfections. Black-hat thinking looks at possible implementation problems. The thinking is negative in tone.

Black-hat thinking is a reality check. It poses a tough question such as, “Why won’t this work in our school?” If one ignores the negative consequences of doing something, there’s a price to pay—failure. There are costs to failure. Money and time could be wasted. Huge damage can be done to relationships between learners, staff and the parent community.

Yellow-hat thinking
Yellow-hat thinking encourages optimism and positivity. The focus is on the benefits of change. The thinking is constructive.

It wants good and valued things to happen.

New proposals are welcome. When implementing proposals, questions are asked, such as: What needs to be put in place to implement the changes? (examples: more money, extra sport coaches); What modifications of the original proposals need to be changed? 

Green-hat thinking
Green-hat thinking encourages creativity and lateral thinking. To use the jargon, the green-hat person thinks “out of the box” and is a “blue-sky thinker”. There’s the deliberate creation of new ideas.

New ways of solving old problems are sought.

Wear a green hat and feel free to ask, “What if we ...?” and “Why don’t we ...?” It’s a licence to dream. Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey are green-hat dreamers and thinkers.

Blue-hat thinking
The blue hat symbolises control in a meeting. It’s been compared to the conductor of an orchestra. Insightful comments, brilliant ideas and sound proposals can be expressed but be totally wasted if a meeting lacks structure. Often, the role of wearing the blue hat is given to the chairman. That person ensures that all the different hats are worn.

The blue hatter makes sure that everyone has a chance to speak and abides by the rules. The chair keeps everyone focused. Conclusions and summaries are the responsibility of those wearing the blue hat.

Using De Bono’s six thinking hats will help make your meetings really meaningful. Better thinking happens and better decisions are made. When you walk away from such a meeting, you’ll be able to comment that it was quality time well spent.

Richard Hayward, a former principal, conducts school leadership and management programmes under the aegis of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Poor schools are sponsored. For more details, please contact Vanessa du Toit at 012-349-5006; [email protected] or Richard Hayward at [email protected]

Suggesting good ideas
Some schools have suggestion boxes. There’s an open invitation to write complaints as well as suggestions and put them in a box near the principal’s office. The argument is that certain children and parents are too nervous to approach the principal directly. They are scared that they’d be victimised by the staff.

A counter-argument is that a quality school has open and honest communication. If a person has a concern, the individual knows that they will be listened to in an empathic manner. Any form of victimisation is bullying and quality schools don’t tolerate any form of bullying. Encourage face-to-face meetings so that all the facts can be put on the table.

There’s a far better way of finding out what concerns folk than by having a suggestion box filled with anonymous notes. Make sure that there are sufficient meetings with the children, the parents and the staff.

Invitational leadership welcomes the sharing of ideas and suggestions on how to improve the school. By so doing, open communication is encouraged and gossiping discouraged.
“What should I do with the anonymous letter?”

You might have receive anonymous letters in which a colleague is trashed or defamatory statements are made or written about a child. What do you do? The solution is simple. Bin the letter!

Do the same with anonymous emails. Refuse to take phone calls from anonymous callers. Trying to act on an anonymous tip-off about, for example, a staff member is grossly unfair. That staff member is put under suspicion. It can damage relationships among staff. If the school claims to treat everyone with honesty and fairness, then “walk the talk” of such values.

This was initially published in Quality Education News (, Issue 14. Reprinted with permission.

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