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Virtual Black Hats — Five Success Factors

Group of business peopleThe COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to adapt to new ways of doing business virtually. Many of us who previously looked askance at telework and virtual meetings have been forced to embrace them along with many now-familiar tools and platforms such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex.

But what about Black Hats? Can a Black Hat be conducted virtually? And if so, can it be done effectively? As someone who for years spoke out against the idea of a virtual Black Hat, I’m pleased to say the answer to both questions is YES! I’ve now had the privilege of organizing and facilitating multiple virtual competitor Black Hat sessions, with more to come, and I have found that the success of a virtual Black Hat depends on the following Five Critical Success Factors:

  1. Participants
  2. Preparation
  3. Facilitation
  4. Engagement
  5. Virtual Platform

The more experienced readers may notice that the first four of these success factors are pretty much the same as a standard in-person Black Hat — TRUE! However, there are some subtle differences that apply in a virtual context.

  1. Participant selection remains the most crucial success factor of any Black Hat, for the simple reason that the participants are the Black Hat. The findings, conclusions, and recommendations of a Black Hat represent the collective belief of the group. As in computing, so in Black Hats — “garbage in, garbage out.” Finding the right participants can be challenging, but the virtual setting can make it a little easier by removing the need to be local or able to travel.
Recommendation: Look for employees who are knowledgeable about the customer and/or the competitors, and willing to spend the time to share that knowledge over the course of a day or so. Remember to include employees of teammates (assuming a firm teaming agreement and NDA are in place), as well as outside consultants as necessary.
  1. Preparation refers to pre-Black Hat homework for the participants. This is important for the same reason that participant selection is important — because the more knowledgeable participants are, the more accurate their conclusions will be. So participants must be well-prepared, bringing not just their historical knowledge, but enhancing and refreshing that knowledge with up-to-date research.
Recommendation: Provide participants with read-ahead materials (on the opportunity, the customer, and the competitors) and urge them to augment it with their own independent research in advance of the Black Hat.
  1. Facilitation is just as crucial, if not more so, in a virtual setting as it is in-person. The facilitator is responsible for guiding the discussion by asking questions, capturing and clarifying responses, drawing out insights, and seeking consensus, all while quelling the inevitable “rabbit trail” discussion or capture team interjection. In a virtual Black Hat, the facilitator has the added burden of grappling with the technical elements of the meeting itself — in other words, setting up and operating the virtual platform and running the meeting.
Recommendation: Appoint or employ a skilled, strong, yet flexible facilitator with good listening skills and excellent communication and IT skills; conduct practice sessions ahead of time to test screen sharing and editing functions; consider delegating meeting logistics to a co-facilitator.
  1. Engagement of all participants has historically been a challenge for virtual meetings, where participants have the ability to mute cameras and microphones and “go dark,” but this is where the collective quarantine has helped us somewhat. With the in-person option eliminated, a switch has been flipped in most of our brains that says, “I have to make this work.” And since necessity is the mother of invention, we have adapted out of necessity. But disengaged or disinterested participants undermine even the most well-planned Black Hat, so organizers and facilitators must do everything they can to keep people engaged.
Recommendation: Encourage and incentivize active participation (webcams and mics unmuted), take frequent breaks, direct questions to specific people to keep them alert, and avoid “side-bar” discussions that exclude some participants and tempt them to “check-out.”
  1. The Virtual Platform is the one critical tool that separates a virtual Black Hat from a standard in-person Black Hat. Whether you use Zoom, Skype, Webex, or GoToMeeting (my personal favorite), the platform you choose must provide the basic functions of screen sharing for the facilitator, and audio for all participants. Quality is important, so participants should ensure good bandwidth and minimal background noise. Video for participants is optional, but can help people feel more connected and stay engaged.
    NOTE: Some organizations prefer to conduct Competitor Black Hats in multiple parallel “tracks” or “break-out sessions.” This admittedly is more complicated to do virtually, but not impossible, as some virtual meeting platforms (e.g., Zoom, GoToTraining) provide the ability to divide the team into smaller groups temporarily before coming back together as a large group. But using this feature has drawbacks, introducing more complexity and potential for confusion.
Recommendation: Research platform options to identify strengths and weaknesses and verify compatibility with company networks and systems. Thoroughly test well in advance of the Black Hat session; consider assessing competitors in serial instead of in parallel tracks for simplicity.

For more information about Virtual Black Hats or Virtual Black Hat Reviews, please contact us at Info@RichterAndCompany.com.

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Three Things a Black Hat Is Not

The term “Black Hat” has become a well-known term in business development circles, particularly in the federal contracting world. Many capture and proposal teams regard these exercises as an important – if not crucial – tool in developing an effective capture strategy. Most of us know and agree – at least at a high level – that a Black Hat is an activity wherein participants role-play your competition with the goal of improving your own strategy and win.

Beyond that basic definition, variations abound, there are a few common mistakes to avoid. Here are three things a Black Hat is not:

First, a Black Hat is not a capture strategy session. This may seem counter-intuitive since the ultimate goal is to enhance the capture strategy. However, taking time during the Black Hat to strategize completely undermines the main focus of the exercise, which is to understand the competition – something that is woefully under-emphasized in many capture efforts. When facilitating Black Hats, I urge participants to avoid delving into too much discussion about how “we” are going to win. This is also why we caution against using members of the capture team in the Black Hat. A best practice to help avoid capture “rabbit holes” is to keep a running list of recommendations where you can quickly pin an idea, then come back to the list at the end of the day to flesh out those ideas.

Second, a Black Hat is not a box. Templates that are carefully vetted beforehand with various stakeholders can be very helpful for guiding the discussion and capturing important data and analysis during Black Hats. However, participants can sometimes slip into the mindset of just “filling the blanks.” If there is something important that needs to be discussed with regard to the competition, and there isn’t a slide or space where it seems to fit, then for goodness sake, make one! Never let a template imprison the discussion and limit the value of the activity.

Finally, a Black Hat is not a War Game (competition). Black Hats are often populated by BD folks, and we all know BD folks tend to be a rather competitive bunch. A common best practice for Black Hats is to split the group into separate teams, each focusing on one of the primary competitors – so naturally, these competitor teams (made up of BD folks) start to think their aim is to out-do the other teams. The problem with this is that it can lead to unrealistic competitor solutions. Sure, your competitor may want to cut their fee down to zero, but will their executives really approve of that? Or, they may want to take all the other competitors off the street by convincing them to sub, but how likely is that? Remember, the goal of the Black Hat is not to determine the worst-case scenario, but to determine the approaches and solutions competitors are most likely to employ.

For more information about Black Hats, or if you have any questions about our Competitive Intelligence or Price To Win services, please contact us at Info@RichterAndCompany.com.