Many of you know what a Black Hat Review Session is (Black Hat for short) or a least one of the countless variations. Many more of you have heard of the term, but you don’t necessarily know what it really is and what the point is. Perhaps this blog post will sharpen the pencil for some of the Black Hat savvy people and educate others who wonder what a Black Hat is.
First things first, Black Hats are not short meetings of a bunch of guys sitting around a table also known as BOGSAT (thanks David!) talking about things they’ve heard. While BOGSAT might be useful for catching up on news or otherwise generating a few ideas, a BOGSAT session is only as useful as the classic water cooler talks you may see in your office. Black Hats are – at their core – business war gaming sessions. You’re engaged in competition to win business whether it is management consulting services, IT services, sales of technology, whatever.
What’s the bottom line? The objective of a Black Hat is to give the capture team much better insight into probable opposing win strategies thereby allowing the capture team’s strategy to adjust and ultimately a better chance to prevail.
I am not advocating Black Hats for every capture. Black Hats are very demanding to do effectively. Consider the use of a Black Hat if you have a capture effort that is a major re-compete, a significant stretch target or a very large capture compared to your overall business.
As is the case with any exercise the Black Hat must be well planned in order to succeed. Let’s review some important planning and preparatory steps to make the Black Hat a success.
It’s all about the people. First and foremost is who you engage to participate in the Black Hat. Exercising a careful selection process can make or break a Black Hat from the start. This may seem obvious, but the participants must have one or more of the following attributes to be effective in a Black Hat.
- Knowledge of the competitor being examined
- Knowledge of the buying customer
- Experience running and winning captures
- Sound technical knowledge relevant to the opportunity in question
- Experience participating in Black Hat Review Sessions
Admittedly, this may sound like a MOTO series of criteria, but all too often I’ve been asked to include someone with dubious value to the Black Hat. There are few (if any) people that add value to any given Black Hat. Is there ever a single person who is also the best person any job? No. People with something to offer are key to winning. Not everyone is a good fit for every job and every instance.
Who’s on first? Don’t just unceremoniously assign people to teams without some structure. Give them some roles relevant to why you picked them in the first place. At a minimum select a team lead. The team lead should be the person with the overall best relevant knowledge to the capture effort or at least the best experience to run a Black Hat team.
Who is going to eat your lunch? It is imperative to spend time and effort to research and analyze the strengths, weaknesses and possible strategies that may be engaged by all of the most credible competitors before you start the session itself. There may be some people out there that are positively brilliant and they can develop creative and plausible win strategies in the blink of an eye without the slightest bit of preparation. However, the rest of us mere mortals have to work at this and work hard.
If you’ve read any of my earlier blog postings you’ll note that I always emphasize to do your homework. Admittedly, I was the geeky kid in school who did his homework (OK, maybe during the lunch period, but it did get done). Time invested in knowing your competition actually pays off. If you think you know everything there is to know about a competitor you’re wrong. Check hubris at the door. Assume that even companies you worked for before – even a short while before the Black Hat – have capabilities and experience you don’t know. Do your homework.
Provided you really do know the most likely and credible competition (getting here is another topic entirely, but let’s assume you know it for now) take some time to build a competitor profile. This is not a copy-paste exercise from the company website. Does any company do a great job of both updating their website with relevant information or broadcast everything that they do right now? Further, websites are merely an extension of a marketing communications effort. They often tell stories about what the company wants to do as much as what they actually do. Dig into a company. Dig deep. What do they have that might be brought to bear to win? Who do they have that might be utilized to win? Think. Write it down. This helps everyone.
Get the gang together. Have 1-2 pre-Black Hat preparatory teleconferences for 30 minutes. Even some basic work before you start the session itself will enable success. If nothing else the short conversations will spark ideas and build rapport before the session starts. I’ve never seen a Black Hat team come together successfully without some good preparation. Good teams build on each other’s strengths and ideas. Harness that power.
No doubt that this blog post doesn’t do the Black Hat process justice. However, maybe this helped you think about it some more or it merely confirmed what you already know. In either case…
Stay focused. Do your capture homework. There are some great opportunities out there. Good hunting!
Brian Lindholm is a 20-year veteran in federal contracting with expertise in market research, competitive intelligence and business development. His experience comes from large businesses such as URS Corporation (now AECOM) and SAIC, consulting roles in small businesses and prior service as a U.S. Naval Officer. He founded FedSavvy Strategies in 2012.