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How Black Hat Exercises Improve Competitive Positioning

Proposals aren’t won in a vacuum. Every victory in a competitive solicitation exists within a competitive landscape. Proposals must not only convince reviewers that your solution is attractive and viable but also that it offers more value than any of your competitors.

As a result, competitive differentiation is one of the most important factors in improving proposal win rates. The best proposal and capture managers perform strategic analyses to determine not only the best way to differentiate against the competition but also how to counter the ways the competition will differentiate against them.

The Black Hat Exercise is a strategic exercise to determine how the competition will position against you and the most effective ways to counter it. This blog post defines the Black Hat Exercise, how the best companies utilize it to capture business, and how to implement it at your company regardless of your size and expertise.

What is a Black Hat Exercise?

A Black Hat Exercise is a competitive analysis exercise in which your company predicts how your competitors will position against you and plots strategic responses to their differentiators. It is called a Black Hat Exercise, because you are asked to put on a “Black Hat”, in which you pretend to be your competition.

A Black Hat Exercise should attempt to answer the following questions:

  • Who are the likely competitors?
  • What solutions will they likely submit?
  • What is the typical price for those solutions?
  • What are differentiators they will highlight to position against your solution?
  • What weaknesses of your solution might they ghost?
  • What are elements of your solution or company that you can stress to mitigate such positioning?

The data collected during the Black Hat Exercise should be compiled into a written document, typically a presentation deck, to be shared with the proposals team so they can incorporate the team’s positioning strategy into the proposal content.

How Should a Black Hat Exercise Be Structured?

Determine the Likely Competition & Assign Roles

Before the Black Hat Exercise, the lead on the opportunity should socialize who they anticipate likely competition to be. Then, the lead should assign roles for the Black Hat Exercise.

Roles should first and foremost include competitor emulators, who will prepare research on how their assigned competitor will position themselves against you. On larger teams, each competitor might be assigned to a separate individual. On smaller teams, contributors might be asked to emulate several competitors.

Additional roles needed for the exercise might include a facilitator, a notetaker, and a mock reviewer, who can press those wearing the black hats to learn more about their perspective.

Hold the Black Hat Exercise Meeting

After the prep work is completed, it’s time to hold the Black Hat Exercise. All parties should come ready with researched positions that they expect the competitors to take in the solicitation. Then, each Black Hat participant that represents a competitor should present their perspective and strategy. The mock reviewer should ask questions that will help refine the strategy and the room to better understand the competition’s perspective. The notetaker should be capturing all the information for later use by the proposal team.

At the end of the meeting, ample time should be allotted to reviewing each competitor’s likely strategy and discussing positioning that can counter their likely approaches.

Convert Black Hat Exercise into Proposal Content

After the Black Hat Exercise, the proposal team is responsible for converting the material into powerful proposal content that positions your product against the competition. The team should incorporate the Black Hat Exercise data into the proposed proposal strategy and win themes. The proposal team should also create an annotated outline of the proposal that notes where specific differentiation will be included in the proposals.

Use Reviews to Check for Black Hat Takeaways

Proposal reviews should be utilized to double-check that takeaways from the Black Hat Exercise actually made it into the proposal.

First, the proposal manager or writer should create a proposal strategy document that highlights win themes, which should be informed by the Black Hat Exercise. Reviewers of the strategy document should confirm that it satisfies the takeaways from the Black Hat Exercise. This review is known as the Blue Team Review.

After the bulk of the proposal is written, another review should be performed that checks to make sure the content of the proposal properly conveys the information that the team decided to highlight. This review is known as the Red Team Review.

One way to standardize the above reviews and incorporate additional checkpoints is through the Color Team Review System. The Color Team Review System is a best practice proposal management tool that the best-performing companies utilize to optimize their proposals. To learn more about the Color Team Review System, read our overview of how to implement them at any resource level here.

How to Implement Black Hat Exercises at Your Company, Regardless of Size

We get it. Sometimes proposal best practices sound like they were created for a whole other breed of companies, ones with unlimited resources and time to implement the most elaborate and detailed processes. But don’t despair. The point of these proposal best practices is to show you what the most evolved version might look like. Below, we discuss tangible steps every company can take to position against their competition, regardless of their size and resources.

Determine the Likely Competition

The best way to determine the likely competition is to attend RFx pre-meetings. You might also submit a question for the RFx about who has received proposal materials or who attended information sessions. Knowing the competition is a great first step.

Perform a SWOT Analysis of Your Offerings

If you don’t have the intel to decide what your competitors will position against you, you can start off by highlighting your own competitive advantages and weaknesses. By knowing what your weaknesses are, you can prepare responses should anyone try to highlight them.

Debrief Losses

When you lose, ask the reviewers why. Oftentimes, their responses can fill in valuable information and help you understand competitors’ differentiation strategy against you.

Give it a Go & Iterate

Don’t be afraid to implement modified versions. Positioning is incredibly important. Don’t leave it to chance because the process seems too intimidating. Implement a small version of the process, or use it on the most important bids. Get better. Make tweaks. And keep iterating until you have it down.

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