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.

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.

DJ is an esteemed former member of the cxpartners team.