Take a Walk on the Dark Side

dark-side_500It was 1998. The prospect was a three-letter giant (TLG) in the telecom segment. The opportunity was a very large desktop upgrade project, where the prospect was proposing to replace their existing desktop services infrastructure. The value of the project was multiple millions of dollars in servers, PC’s, software and professional services.

Hewlett-Packard was the incumbent provider of servers for TLG. Unfortunately, their relationship with TLG’s desktop infrastructure team had been slipping for years. The current VP of desktop operations had been developing an increasingly close relationship with Compaq. The HP team saw this opportunity as a chance to turn the tables on Compaq and win a major piece of business.

The HP global account manager called a Hail-Mary play, and lobbied hard with the HP consulting organization to fund an extensive pilot of the proposed server implementation. He hoped to win back favor with the prospect and level the field on the relationship front.

Six months and several hundred thousand dollars of HP-funded consulting later, the prospect had awarded the total hardware, software, and implementation project to Compaq. Compaq, of course, was quite happy to accept the zero-cost validation of their architecture, funded by HP.

The HP team were scratching their heads:

“Where had our strategy gone wrong?”

“How could we have avoided investing all that time and effort into this flawed plan?

The answers were painful, but simple.

1) We assumed that a technology investment would result in a relationship improvement.

2) We hadn’t properly understood the risks in our approach.

As consultants trying to advance a decision, we often let our objectivity slip when we are enchanted by the upside, the best case, the wonderful outcome, without doing proper due diligence about what could go wrong.

When we are considering a major decision, it often helps to let our imaginations run wild, in a negative way. Said another way, we need to let the teams brainstorm every possible way this initiative could fail, prioritize the risks, and then put plans in place to neutralize or mitigate the biggest of them.

Every team has some mix of optimists, pessimists, and realists.   Often times, the optimists have the most assertive personalities, and tend to dominate the decision meetings. The realists and pessimists in the group are reluctant to voice their concerns for fear of seeming negative, and allow themselves to be shouted down by the optimists.

Teams can benefit from a process, which enables the more conservative teammates to safely share their doubts and concerns, and encourages the overall team to deal with those concerns in a comprehensive way. Enter, the Black Hat Decision Review process.

The black hat decision review process is an important way to make sure that all facts, opinions, insights, and projected impacts are thoroughly considered and vetted.

Giving the pessimists and realists a forum to share their views in an overt and safe way helps teams avoid costly mistakes for the small price of some additional time and process in their deliberation of the decision. (See the previous article, “How to run a black hat decision review”)

Beyond the obvious advantage of making a well-considered decision, using this approach signals to the entire team that everyone’s opinion is valuable and will be taken into account.

Beyond the advantage of clear thinking, this technique improves the level of trust and commitment that each member holds toward the team as a whole, and their individual teammates.

Bottom line: The more investment, effort, and potential return there is in a particular decision, the more important it is to invest fully in the understanding and mitigation of risk.

When you are considering your next major decision, take the time, involve your entire team, and get all the perspectives on the table.

Take a walk on the dark side. Try out the black hat review, and see if it doesn’t yield clearer decisions, better-managed risk, and enhanced buy-in from your team. (And oh, by the way, improved probability of winning more often!)