Joe Jordan

the geek of hearts

The Black Hat Defence

black hats

What is a black hat?

A black hat is an awkward kind of person. They’re the troll, the class clown, the devil’s advocate. Their job, whether self-appointed or not, is to critique, toy with and interrogate someone from an arbitrary, hostile point of view in order to test how well they understand their own views, actions and decisions.

The cartoon above contains a character who embodies this spirit, who regularly does terrible things to reveal other people’s weaknesses and is generally feared and loathed in his world for it. In this encounter he meets a black hat for black hats, and is rightly terrified.

This phenomenon is well used in industry; whether its software engineers peer reviewing one another’s code, managers going over their employees work in an annual review, or companies bidding to run huge government contracts panel-reviewing their delivery models – everyone checks their working, in one way or another.

Sometimes it works

Academia is the prime example of black hattism working its magic – there is always an academic willing to take any damn position, whether they really believe it or just for the notoriety, and academics fight to the death forever. Of course software engineers, seeing themselves as pseudo-academics, are quite happy to be merciless in their criticism too, and routinely are in their self-formed collaborative groups online. Managers actually have a financial incentive to do down their employees come annual review time, since the review almost always feeds into pay rises, and a high-performing but low-cost team is very much in their (or their boss’) direct financial interest.

Sometimes not so much

However there are plenty of cases, especially in industry and government, where hearing a regular robust criticism of your thoughts and actions is not the default way of running things. Senior politicians and business executives rarely expose their own working practise to scrutiny at all, let alone their strategic decisions. Even the government bids aren’t properly scrutinised, because it’s not in the companies interest to spend tens of thousands more on wages to redo all the work they’d just finished.

In government departments, civil servants work off points systems. Taking initiative is not rewarded; instead, each role is mapped out from on high, and your performance is judged within a bunch of predefined criteria; reviewers aren’t allowed to appreciate wider benefits, internal efficiencies and out-of-the-box thinking at all. These points are the basis on which people are promoted to a new role, with new criteria. People aren’t encouraged to think they are encouraged to sit there and get on with it. This is also the experience of the many many people employed up and down the country in jobs that don’t require degrees (well, some of them do, but only because of degree inflation – you don’t actually need a degree to do the job.) This is a massive waste of brain power and talent, and we aren’t being as efficient, as productive or as awesome as we could be, because people aren’t even allowed to black hat their own work.

Essentially I think there is not enough black hattery, devil’s advocacy and general listening to of critical ideas in the world. This is partly a problem with pride, and partly a problem with culture. But we’re going to have to get better at it or we won’t get very far at all. Black hat teams should be made up of hand-picked-but-random groups – someone from the canteen staff, someone from IT, someone from accounts or HR and finally someone from the actual department who you’re testing, and making sure that you have a mixture of newbie and veteran employees, high level managers and staff from the “trenches”. That way you’ll have the maximum diversity in expectations, life experience and way-of-thinking, and at least a sprinkle of knowledge from a relevant discipline.

This is how Markets are supposed to work

I am very confused why companies, particularly the capitalists at the top of them, don’t understand that more criticism is better, not worse. If someone has found a hole in your plan, great – they’ve stopped you falling into that hole! Now stop feeling hurt because a twentysomething woman was cleverer than you, and get on and do what she said! Black hatting should be standard practise at every level of every organisation, all the time, and implementing other people’s better ideas should be a no brainer.

Markets are built on the principal that someone else is trying to beat you. They are watching your every move and will pounce and scoop up half your market share if you make a single mistake. In that situation you not only want everyone working at their most performant, which you only get by regular black hatting at every level, but you also want to have a bunch of black hats of your own who only see what the enemy see – lock them in a building down the road and pay them to tell you exactly what their strategy is, given your latest move. Not only the clash of collaborations, companies, whatever but also the clash of ideas within those collaborations is what makes markets strong, and superior in every sense to top-down planned and designed systems.

This is how Governments are supposed to work

For a political blog getting this far before really laying into politicians must be something of a rarity. In case you’d forgotten for a moment, this principal is identical to the reason we have both elections and parliamentary debates. Politicians are supposed to argue publicly, criticise one another’s ideas mercilessly, and then vote in a chambre based on how many of them were convinced. Of course, thanks to parties and whips, this almost never happens, but it’s nice to have a target to work towards nonetheless.

Similarly, at election time they argue and argue for weeks on end, and eventually people are allowed to vote them in or out, based on who they judged to be the winner of the arguments. It’s a shame they then immediately set about surrounding themselves with advisers who agree with them.

The Black Hat should be a new defence in libel suits and employment tribunals

There are too many companies willing to sue their critics – I’m thinking of Simon Singh and the Homeopaths in particular – or even take out an injunction to hide their incompetence and irresponsibility – I’m thinking of Trafigura – and there should be a legal defence against these unjust attacks on free speech and thought based on black hat theory. It is not cool to slag people off – that’s just plain libel – but a detailed criticism of an organisations operations at any level, whether by a former employee or a journalist, is a legitimate attempt at improving the workings of that organisation by definition, and should be defensible against either libel or, almost worse, an attempted dismissal. Whether the criticism occurs verbally, junior employee to senior or to a meeting, in a company-wide document, like a memo, or in the national press, companies should not be allowed to sack or sue people, and journalists should not be in breach of injunctions, for well applied constructive criticism.

Loyalty vs. Black Hattism

Finally, a quick word about the Labour party and it’s tendency for loyalty, no matter what. There was a blog post recently where one brave Labourite climbed the barricades and hoisted a flag of rational argument. The result? He came very close to being disowned.

Now I’m not going to get into whether Mr Bozier was right or wrong – that’s ultimately a debate for Labour to have amongst themselves – what is interesting is Labour’s reaction to a dissenting voice speaking against the party line; a party line that the base is particularly fond of too. When you get a post on Lib Dem Voice arguing something unpopular sure you get grumbles, and arguments, and a clash of ideas in the comments, but you don’t get people telling each other to leave the party.

Labour need to learn from black hat theory – they need to open up their conference to debate once more – and start generating fitter, stronger, faster policy, and generally being more tolerant about people throwing political ideas around on the net. Then they might actually have something to talk about in debates, instead of the constant faux-fight that we see week in week out. I’m glad the Lib Dems are in government at the moment – and thus having a far greater impact on policy than before – it’s just a shame the official opposition are nowhere near as effective.

(Since this post was written, Luke Bozier joined the Conservative party.)

originally appeared here