Avoiding Groupthink: The Power of Red Teaming

Whenever I was involved in a planning process or decision-making process within the military, we always, without question, would embrace what we’d call a red teaming approach. That is, nominate people to see the weaknesses in our plan or decision, challenge our assumptions, and make sure we were aware of any biases, conscious or unconscious, that we’d used in developing the plan or making the decision.

We deliberately gave them permission to pick holes in our planning or decision-making processes.

This is because one of the biggest adversaries we ever faced wasn’t the external threats or unforeseen circumstances; it was the tendency towards groupthink and complacency within our own planning processes and decision making.

Challenging Groupthink: The Red Teaming Approach

Red teaming involves appointing individuals to play the role of the ‘adversary’, tasked with scrutinizing plans and decisions for weaknesses and gaps.  It could be as simple as asking someone to try to find the gaps in our thinking during our planning discussions at simple meetings, to a more detailed approach, nominating a small team to question our assumptions and highlight the underdeveloped what-ifs that we’d overlooked.

Either way, this practice, originating from wargaming in the military, injects a vital challenge function into the planning process, akin to players assuming the role of opposing forces in a war game scenario.

Mitigating Complacency and Assumption-Based Planning

Central to the red teaming approach is its ability to mitigate complacency and challenge the assumptions underlying our plans. By giving someone explicit permission and authority to question the status quo, organizations empower individuals to identify potential flaws and alternative perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked.

I’ll never forget making some pretty decent errors as a young leader and my boss pulling me aside and whispering politely in my ear “Remember, Mr Jewell, every f&%k up starts with an assumption. An assumption which was wrong.” Red teaming helps to mitigate bad assumptions.

Embracing Diversity and Fresh Perspectives

While asking people with experience to play this role can certainly enrich the red team’s insights, diversity of thought is equally valuable. New team members or those with different experiences and backgrounds bring fresh perspectives, challenging entrenched norms and offering innovative solutions. In fact, they often are the exact voices we need to hear. Thus, red teaming isn’t solely about scrutinizing existing plans but also about fostering an environment where diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

Navigating Complexity: Principles for Effective Red Teaming

For red teaming to be effective, certain principles must be in place, first among them being trust and leadership endorsement. Teams must trust that the red team’s critiques are aimed at improvement rather than criticism (following the philosophy that challenge = loyalty), and leaders must empower red team members to challenge assumptions without fear of reprisal.  This is done by giving someone this role and thus permission to challenge, so they feel more comfortable, and the team all understand that they’re playing this game and not just being ‘difficult’…

Additionally, red teaming requires a willingness to navigate complexity and embrace uncertainty, recognizing that robust decision-making involves considering a range of potential outcomes.

Applications Across Industries: From Military Strategy to Corporate Planning

The utility of red teaming extends beyond the battlefield, finding application in various sectors. In the military, it has long been employed to stress-test strategies and anticipate enemy tactics.

Similarly, in the corporate world, red teaming enhances strategic planning by identifying vulnerabilities, exploring new opportunities, and fostering agility in the face of uncertainty.

Whether in combat operations or corporate boardrooms, the principles of red teaming remain consistent: to challenge assumptions, mitigate risks, and ultimately, make better decisions.

It’s relevance in a VUCA environment

In conclusion, red teaming serves as a powerful tool for decision-makers seeking to navigate the complexities of an uncertain world. By embracing diverse perspectives, challenging groupthink, and scrutinizing assumptions, organizations can fortify their plans and strategies against unforeseen threats and opportunities. In a VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), the discipline of red teaming offers a pathway to resilience and adaptability, ensuring that organizations remain agile and prepared for whatever challenges lie ahead.

Some final tips

Red teaming is not about picking holes in a plan. Its about making it stronger and looking for opportunities.

Anyone who identifies gaps or weaknesses should also put equal energy into identifying solutions.

Always stay curious. Seek to inquire about other perspectives instead of advocating for your own.

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