The power of ‘black hat’ thinking

If you’ve worked anywhere near technology over the last 10-15 years you will probably be slightly wary of the phrase “black hat”. For those in tech, ‘black hat’ typically has negative connotations as it’s usually associated with devious hackers who can hack into systems to steal your personal data, or with clever search engine optimisers who can game rankings to drive additional web traffic. But that’s not where ‘black hat’ comes from.

Thinking hats
In 1985, Edward de Bono published his seminal book Six Thinking Hats. Within it, he outlines the modes of thinking that are required to develop the best – and most balanced – creative ideas. One of the ‘hats’ is the black hat.

Even as children, when we’re taught about effective teamwork and positive relationships, we are taught to play nicely. Criticise, yes, we’re taught. But constructively.

In contrast to this, I’ve had some experiences with people I’ve worked with in previous lives who were a lot less than constructive. And while at the time the experience infuriated me no end, a few of those projects had the most impact of any of which I’ve been involved.

What is black hat thinking?
I’ve recognised in hindsight that my previous colleagues and clients who were destructive in their approach were simply ‘black hat thinkers’. (Mentally, I’ve buried the hatchet of the tumult of anguish they caused me; it’s taken a few years I’ll admit… but hopefully I have matured.) In de Bono’s book, black hat thinking is described as “discerning thinking – the logic applied to identifying reasons to be cautious and conservative”. Black hat thinkers may not provide ideas, but they’re great at spotting the holes and weaknesses in someone else’s and backing their observations up with logical, rational reasoning.

While I’m not convinced it’s healthy to adopt this mode of thinking permanently, I do believe that black hat thinking can be an effective weapon in one’s arsenal in defeating uncertainty and developing truly breakthrough ideas.

Critical thinking is powerful
For example, recently one of our teams was about to embark on a large and complex year-long engagement with a new client. There was a highly pressurised deadline and lots of stakeholders on the client’s side to engage. It’s natural at the start of these types of engagements to project a really positive attitude and do one’s best to ‘make friends’. However, this often leads to people overlooking some of the less positive times that inevitably lie ahead.

To avoid this, we held a ‘pre-mortem’. Instead of working out what went wrong with the project after it was too late to do anything about it, we focussed on exactly that right up front. We went to our client’s offices for two days, gathered all the relevant stakeholders from our client’s business, and brainstormed what we all thought would cause pain on the project.

This approach had breakthrough impact. The client and their senior stakeholders started to understand in much greater detail and with greater clarity the journey the business was about to embark upon. Unforeseen risks and issues were logged, actions taken to mitigate them, and major catastrophes were averted; all within a week of the project starting.

And fundamentally the experience brought the team together with a shared goal and plan, so that stakeholders felt engaged, the client’s project team felt at one with our team, and our team felt that they understood the client’s business a great deal better.

How to use black hat thinking
‘Donning the black hat’ is a move to be made advisedly. In general, people don’t respond to unconstructive feedback well, so in any group or one to one setting make sure you know what you’re doing. If people are unaware you’re using black hat thinking it can be a disaster for your relationship with them.

Make sure your questions and challenges are dispassionate and couldn’t be construed as personal attacks, and if you can, pre-empt the conversation with a discussion about what black hat thinking looks like. Edward de Bono recommends that you literally say, “I’m now putting on the black hat”. This makes it clear to people are that you’re switching modes and taking on a persona. (Meanwhile, you could ask someone else to ‘put on the green hat’ to be the creative, expansive thinker in the room).

Ensure that for every idea you attempt to undermine from someone else, you provide logical and rational reasoning for your position. Deliver your points in a calm and detached manner. Ask people around you if they can see things your way. And never defend your position when it’s obvious it no longer makes sense.

The purpose of black hat thinking is to make sure ideas are robust, not to prevent anything from happening.

What to avoid
In my previous experiences with my black hat thinking colleagues, I’ve realised ‘donning the black hat’ was less a conscious choice, it was more a way of life. I’ve realised now the person at fault was me because I didn’t know how best to channel their talents to best effect. But it did take me a long time to work that out.

So try not to be a black hat thinker all the time. Use your newly-acquired skills wisely, with compassion and respect for others. Exploit them for the benefit of your group’s goals rather than to serve your own selfish needs, and they will serve you well.

First published on the cxpartners blog.

Life’s a pitch: 10 ways to run an effective tendering process

Over the years cxpartners has been involved in plenty of competitive pitches and tendering processes. We’ve learned the hard way that not all tender processes are created equal and, try as we might, some of the clients and projects to which we thought we were best suited we’ve ended up not winning. And sometimes vice versa. Here’s ten ways in which we think clients can improve tender processes to achieve better outcomes…

1. Get buy-in from the top of the organisation before you start

Before you set your mind to what you need from your new supplier, consider who in your organisation might want to have a say in which company gets chosen. Mapping out your stakeholders, clearly noting their roles and areas of responsibility within the process will provide useful information that will help suppliers understand your organisation. By talking to these people right from the start and sorting out any clashing priorities or differences of opinion, you’ll prevent the process getting railroaded later on.

2. Make it a fair fight

Clients often talk about their relationships with agencies like they’re a time-worn marriage. Perhaps the relationship with your current partner has gone past the ‘first flush of romance’ and you’re looking to ‘spice things up’. The solution? Hold a pitch!

The reasons clients hold pitches and write tenders are many and varied – so when it comes to engaging new companies, make sure it’s a fair fight. Provide everyone with the same information about what you’re trying to achieve and why, plus everything relevant about your; organisation, competitors and business model. If you have a period where suppliers can ask you clarifying questions, make sure all participants get to see the answers. Do your damnedest not to let one company get an unfair competitive advantage due to how you manage the process.

3. Secure budget for the whole engagement before you tender – so you can get going immediately after appointment

When you work for an agency or consultancy, there’s nothing that gets the adrenaline and creative juices flowing more than a competitive pitch. It’s where the rubber hits the road to test your metal head-to-head with agency competitors and get a result, and quickly. Pitches get agency people excited. New ideas and new possibilities are dreamt up, future plans are discussed, sales forecasts are updated.

If you’re the client running the process, don’t disappoint your new suppliers. Make sure you’ve formally secured buy-in to commence the work soon after the pitch. You want to keep your new supplier’s elation at winning the business alive, during and beyond the immediate ‘honeymoon period’.

4. Be clear about how to win

Clients tend to be looking for external perspectives on their business when they write tenders. By providing a clear route to winning the business, clients get concerned that suppliers may restrict their creativity.

Don’t let this way of thinking fool you: as someone tasked with responding to tenders, there’s nothing as frustrating as a woolly, poorly-defined tender document. By thinking clearly up front about what you need and what the supplier needs to demonstrate in order to win, you’ll get much more creative and focussed responses.

For example, if value for money is most important to you, tell suppliers your budget and what you expect them to deliver for it. The valuable ideas that come out of the proposals may stem from the trade offs made to come in on budget, or from how the work is delivered.

5. Be reasonable about timeframes and deadlines, and stick to them

Even for smaller pieces of work a phenomenal amount of effort, coordination, anxiety and craft goes into producing the information required to win a tender. Agencies and consultancies need to commit people and money to effort that is usually not billable – at least not up front.

Respect your prospective partners by acknowledging a few weeks may be required to get the right people involved and provide the attention required to deliver you a solid proposal. Sometimes longer if it’s a long term engagement.

It’s right to expect speedy turnaround when you engage with external suppliers but setting unreasonable deadlines or moving the goalposts on timeframes will harm you and your organisation’s reputation with prospective partners.

6. Minimise unnecessary bureaucracy

Many larger companies use standardised procurement systems and processes across the organisation. Due diligence and corporate governance standards mandate that certain checks and balances are met to deliver consistency of quality and service from new suppliers. That’s understandable.

But don’t let your organisation get in the way of prospective partners providing a quality response to your brief or tender. Support your potential partners through your organisation’s procurement processes and provide reasonable assistance to help them be the best they can be. Help them prepare themselves for any process-driven ‘gotchas’ that may be coming down the track.

7. Set aside the time to provide open access to your organisation

As cxpartners has grown, we’ve been fortunate enough to work on some really impactful projects. We’ve been able to do this in large part because of the way we collaborate with our clients.

A stellar pitch response always stems from getting right under the skin of the client’s problem and ‘peeling away the onion’ before coming up with innovative approaches and ideas. The best clients know that’s how these things work. They make sure we’ve got access to all the information, people and parts of the organisation that are relevant to the undertaking.

Being party to the way the relationship between client and supplier works is also a great way to work out if there’s the right ‘chemistry’. Consider workshop sessions to explore your requirements instead of (or as well as) formal Q&A meetings. Making your organisation feel human to your partners will get your prospective partners even more excited about working with you.

8. Don’t reward gimmickry; penalise sloppiness

One of the by-products of competing in an environment that incentivises creative thinking is clever people trying to ‘game’ the process. Treat this approach with scepticism – perhaps the supplier will try to game you as a client if they can’t impress you with the quality of their response.

Equally, those who submit sloppy, typo-strewn proposals and presentations should not be tolerated. Perhaps the same mistakes will crop up in their work with you later on. Can you afford to let that happen?

9. Be decisive

Big decisions are never easy. It’s well known that humans lean on their subconscious mind when making big decisions, and even the most rational of tender processes will always have an element of emotion attached to it.

When you commit to work with a supplier for an extended period of time you need to consider whether the people you’re going to work are a good fit for your business. So make that part of the selection criteria, alongside all the more rational criteria like value for money and the appropriateness of the ideas and solutions proposed. If you’re clear about the criteria, being decisive should be a lot easier. And once you’ve decided, commit and follow through. There’s nothing worse than an organisation that isn’t decisive when it comes to the crunch.

10. Once you’ve made a decision, be there to provide considered and constructive feedback to all participants

There will always be ‘losers’ in a tendering situation. Leaders treat failure as an opportunity to learn and be better next time. Take the time to ensure you’re facilitating this learning, instead of spending all your time with ‘the winners’. The other companies might be well positioned to help you out later down the line.

In a competitive environment, pitches and tendering are a fact of life. Mostly, they’re an exciting way for agencies to get to grips with new challenges and for clients to bring in fresh thinking from outside the organisation. The pitch is a controlled way to test the market to see what’s available. And yet, pitch processes are an expensive drain on time, people and money, for both suppliers and for clients.

In our experience, the best clients recognise these costs and ensure there’s a win-win for all the companies involved, even for those who don’t get appointed. Follow the ten pointers above, and you’ll find yourself on the road to a high performance relationship with your new supplier, without leaving a bad taste in the mouths of those who didn’t get your business.

[First posted on the cxpartners blog on 13 Aug 2015]

Is user experience really expensive?

While the market for user experience consulting has continued to grow over the last five years, some organisations are only taking their first steps in prioritising investment in professional user experience consultancy.  And it’s often these organisations who need it most – charities with internal disputes about their brand and what to publish online; small businesses who have a world of opportunity at their feet but apparently no money or time to grasp the nettle; local authorities who struggle to separate internal needs from user needs, and therefore navigating and reading their content is frustrating.

Why can’t these organisations apparently afford user experience when they need it so much? I’ve found three reasons:

1. For some, investing in digital channels is not top priority

In companies there’s only ever a limited amount of capital investment or operational investment any one person can lay their hands on. Even in online businesses, there’s usually more than a website or an app to focus on. I’ve found that organisations reveal their ‘strategic underpants’ with their investment decisions (what they do), rather than through all the finely tuned PowerPoint presentations they produce (what they say).

As a result, getting digital or customer-facing investments to the top of the list of priorities is not typically a battle for the faint-hearted. To many organisations, digital feels very new, and many organisations are yet to define how to adequately measure the return on their digital investment.

2. The business operates on a short-term outlook

Investing in user experience is not a ‘magic wand’. Carrying out a usability test can certainly have an above average impact on performance if the right people and processes are in place to deliver on the recommendations.  But it won’t make your website or app ‘perfect’ (is there such a thing?) and it certainly won’t influence the organisation that created it to suddenly become attuned to customer needs.

For companies that are only comfortable driving to short-term goals rather than setting strategic direction, with all the organisational change and risky decision-making longer term thinking implies, investing in user experience can become frustrating if there’s not an immediate payoff.

When senior managers’ time is swallowed up with analysing and taking actions based on daily sales figures, working towards how customers will behave in two years’ time, let alone five or 10 is a serious challenge that websites and apps won’t fix if there’s a lack of commitment across the organisation. A better approach is for rest of the organisation to focus on delivering operational efficiency so that senior management can dedicate more time to strategic planning and direction-setting.

3. Only the few, not the many, need dedicated specialists

A simple fact of life when you’re dealing with profit-and-loss ledgers: smaller businesses can’t sustain large, dedicated teams with niche, specialist skills.

If you’re the finance director in a business that turns over say £5m, the way your job works and the resources you have available to you are going to look very different to that of a finance director of a business turning over £500m. These organisations need different approaches to investing in digital.

The £500m business may well have its own digital team with some in-house expertise in design and user experience. The £5m business may be lucky to have one person dedicated to marketing, let alone people managing websites, social media and apps.

To the smaller business, user experience projects may be be seen as expensive. The key here is for the organisation to understand the value of user experience over time. A usability test may cost a five figure sum, but what will that investment return for them over 3, 6 or 12 months? Modelling cost versus benefit provides a (financial) measure of value.

Value not cost

Nevertheless, for all businesses cost is a short-term lever. For managing directors and CEOs, reducing variable costs may help to paint a rosier picture of profit and loss in this quarter’s numbers. But lowering costs alone doesn’t usually pave the way to a winning long-term strategic advantage.

For that, you also need to consider customer needs and preferences, changes in the competitive environment, technological change, supply chain issues. These are long-term, strategic issues. Companies that win in the long term have a clear idea of how these issues will affect them, and they’re willing to make bets on putting themselves in a position for these trends to play into their hands. These changes to the business are core to their strategy. If the business is not making bets, it’s likely to be stagnating, strategically speaking.

Salaries for people working in UX are rising – driving up costs. But the reason for demand is that companies are waking up to the value of user experience. It’s a long-term trend that began with the dot com crash and the realisation that usability matters. Since usability remains a competitive advantage, there’s no sign that trend will end soon.

So is user experience really expensive?

Perhaps for some. But for those who invest wisely, cost is the wrong metric to measure. In his book Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, Robert Pressman shows that the cost of making a change to software during requirements or design phases is up to 100 times cheaper than making changes post launch. Following this logic, neglecting users early on actually costs you more money in the long run. Therefore those companies who take a step back to apply the learnings of a user-centric approach in a systematic way will generate the most value from their investments.

[First posted on the cxpartners blog on 13 Aug 2015]

Dedicated to being different: the #responsiveorg

Today I spent most of my time in a *space* in London talking about change.

Sounds horrid doesn’t it? But truly this – alongside moving house recently – has been the most transformative day of this year for me, and probably many years before it.

Why? Like a 1960s happening it would be hard to explain if you weren’t there. But in a nutshell:

1. Like minded people came to an event in London in their own time to share ideas about changing how they do work, how their organisations did work, and fundamentally who they are and who their colleagues are as individuals.

2. An unconference was held, where the attendees of the event defined the agenda and facilitated discussions about their chosen topics. Unlike your usual conference, there were no rock stars. The connections I made, the challenges that were laid before me without prejudice, and the conversations I was party to were the memorable moments.

3. Everyone was friendly, intelligent, creative, articulate and willing to share experiences. Sometimes even saying hello can feel difficult when you’re at work. The level of openness I experienced was unprecedented for me outside of some of my closest relationships. And these people were all strangers when I arrived.

4. I ducked out at 10pm, when the conversation had covered sex with robots, how teenagers are taught about anal on YouTube, and how we are in the middle of a New Renaissance. These topics aren’t typical of my usual Saturday evening.

The purpose and true substance of the event will be covered elsewhere, and no doubt extensively. But these are the reflections of someone who has experienced the #responsiveorg movement for the first time, first hand. Now all that remains is for me to work out what to do with all of this new input. And for that alone, I thank everyone involved. Salute!