Good hat, bad hat

As a manager, it can be difficult to uncover what your team is really thinking. People struggle to challenge authority, so the default response to your ideas is: “Sure, that sounds great,” whether they think it or not.

If you cannot access the real opinions of your team, you’re doomed to half-baked ideas that haven’t benefited from rigorous debate. You can try to play Devil’s Advocate with your own ideas, of course. But, the same brain that concocted an idea is not the best tool for dissecting it. We need other perspectives for that.

A lack of debate also leads to fewer options to consider. There is always more than two answers for any problem, even though it doesn’t feel that way. Yet, if the boss proposes a solution, it’s easy for a team to run with it without iterating and finding a third or fourth approach.

Since adopting a more senior role, I’ve been struggling to unearth my team’s real opinions. Along the way I’ve tried to withhold my thoughts until others have spoken (although I’m not perfect at this). I also caveat my views with a weighting (when I remember), so my team knows what’s a mild suggestion versus very strong opinion. But one method has stood out above the others: the good hat, bad hat technique.

The idea is simple. In any discussion, you can assign someone to wear the “good hat” or the “bad hat”. When wearing the good hat, the person must advocate for the idea under discussion, regardless of their true feelings. But more importantly, when wearing the bad hat, the person needs to find fault with the idea presented. Even if the boss came up with it.

The first time I tried this was during a weekly staff meeting. We discussed an important topic for a few minutes, and I sat back listening to the conversation. As we approached a conclusion, I stepped in to synthesise what I’d heard and propose a way forward. There was a murmur of agreement, but something didn’t feel right. So I outlined the good hat, bad hat principle and assigned the bad hat to a particularly supportive team member. What happened next was magical.

Without skipping a beat, he tore the idea to pieces. Emboldened by his invisible bad hat, he highlighted several flaws with my idea and proposed an approach that would avoid them. The rest of the team perked up at this, and I could sense a fruitful discussion was imminent. I thanked my first helper and re-assigned the bad hat to someone else. After a moment of reflection, she admitted she agreed with the first criticism and highlighted a different problem with my idea. At this stage, the team was unleashed, the gloves were off, and a superior solution emerged.

I couldn’t believe how much psychological safety the bad hat had granted the team. It turns out most people are wearing the good hat by default. But when you assign them the bad hat, they feel comfortable showing their negative side. The hat becomes the excuse to release a stream of criticism that is otherwise held in check. Nobody wants to seem like they’re not a team player.

The bad hat concept caught on quickly in my team. In the following team meeting, someone jokingly pulled on a black baseball cap and criticised an idea the group was refining. Once again, the criticism was fair, and help shaped a better outcome.

Soon, the bad hat was embedded in our everyday lingo. I heard people referring to it in mid-conversation, with phrases beginning “With my bad hat on, ….”. Nowadays, I rarely assign it to anyone. I don’t need to. The concept has legitimised rigorous debate and our decisions have benefited from this.

In terms of bang for buck, the good hat, bad hat concept has delivered oversized returns. Metaphorical hats are cheap, while better decisions and team confidence is priceless.