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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.