Get Red and Challenge Group Thinking

When people hear the phase “Red Team” they either say “what’s that” or “isn’t that something to do with hackers”.

Get Red and Challenge Group Thinking

When people hear the phase “Red Team” they either say “what’s that” or “isn’t that something to do with hackers”. They would be correct is they said it was something to do with hacking, but it is also so much more. Hackers need to think like the enemy and to find a way past your defences. This is what Red Teams are all about, to find alternative answers and to challenge group thinking.

The Lone Voice

Have you ever been in a meeting where all your peers agree with an idea but your inner senses, or evidence is saying it is wrong? It is very hard to go against the group. If you speak out the spotlight will be on you, why are you the troublemaker, how dare you go against us. Feeling like this is totally normal. In fact, history repeatedly shows the dangers of group thinking. The Catholic Church has a position called Advocatus Diaboli or Devil’s Advocate. Their job was to argue against the canonization of a candidate. In recent years the well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens was called by the Vatican to play Devil’s Advocate against Mother Teresa [1].

Israel was almost overrun in the 1973 Arab–Israeli War. This was partly attributed to group thinking about the intelligence they were had before the war. As a result they set up their own unit called Ipcha Mistabra translates roughly to “the opposite is more reasonable”. If there are ten people in a room making decisions and nine are in agreement, the tenth is obligated to disagree.

Red Teaming In Business

So as well as hacking, we can apply Red Team tactics almost any part of business decision making. The hard part is allowing people to act as the tenth man, the one who is obliged to speak out. The management book the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni has fear of conflict at #2. He describes this fear as “The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict. “[3].

Fear of Conflict

Don’t be afraid to speak out and challenge the status-quo. Many business processes could be improved just by thinking “why do we do that”. As an individual, you can be your own Red Team by challenging the way you work. Think about how you do things. Can you write better software by using different tools and techniques? Can you provide better customer service by doing something different? Just because things have always been done in a particular way does not mean it’s the best way.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was almost bankrupt and just a follower like all the other PC manufacturers. They were all churning out a huge range of unremarkable computers with not much separating one manufacturer from another. He was effectively an outsider, but with an intimate knowledge of Apple. He was not blinded by what peers in the industry were doing. He knew Apples original mission was to satisfy the high end in consumer and pro markets. Once they started back on that path and innovating rather than following their fortunes quickly changed. He was in essence a one man Red Team, turning the company on its head and changing from a computer manufacturer to a leader in multiple markets in less than ten years. They dropped the word “Computer” from its corporate name in 2007 [4].

Closer to home, I recently specified a new system for a customer that had been through iterative review by their analysts several times. When we thought the spec was complete, a handful of colleagues who had minimal knowledge of the project got together to do a walkthrough. I wanted them to act as a Red Team, to challenge what I had written. This was on the assumption that the customer’s analysts were too close to their existing system and we all had biases in one form or another. My colleagues were able to add a lot of value in just that one hour session. The spec was valid but I still came away with some different angles and some bugs (which is the best time to find them because no code had even been written!)

This is the whole point of Red Teaming. It is not about making plans but about adding value to them. They make us think more and to plan for the unexpected.

As the Financial Times Lexicon says “Red teams are one way to manage the biggest corporate risk of all: thoughtlessness.” [5]


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