The only constant in business is change.
Red team thinking is all about challenging the status quo.
What is Red Team Thinking and Why Companies Should Pay Attention
Red team thinking is how companies should be thinking in today’s business environment. Every year, we hear of “disruption” in age-old industries. 2017 seems to be the year that marks the beginning of the end for traditional retailers like Macy’s (M) and Nordstrom (JWN). Only with nimble practices can today’s best companies hope to maintain their market position alongside internet-enabled upstarts.
In many ways, we need to think like the enemy to innovate.
We live in an age of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, one which is forcing companies around the world to rethink their business models, reevaluate their strategies, and rewrite their rulebooks.
Every day brings new opportunities, but also new challenges and new competitors. The global geopolitical landscape is shifting below our feet. Trade agreements are being rewritten. New technologies are allowing startups to disrupt established industries.
Many of the business tools we have relied on for decades no longer work in a world where incremental improvement is not enough to stay in business, let alone succeed in it. We need new processes, new methodologies, and new ways of thinking if we are to become one of the disruptors, rather than one of the disrupted. Red team thinking is becoming one of the most coveted frameworks in modern business.
Where did Red Team Thinking Begin?
Red team thinking is a system developed by the military and intelligence agencies after 9/11 to help organizations stress-test their strategies, challenge their assumptions, and make better decisions.
2001 was a sobering time for America’s generals and spymasters. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and their stunning victory in a one-sided war with Iraq in 1991, they had believed America’s technological superiority and mastery of information would guarantee her future security at home and victory abroad.
In the ruins of the twin towers and the short-lived victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, they discovered just how wrong they were.
Drawing on the latest research in cognitive psychology and human decision making, the CIA and the U.S. Army began pulling together an array of critical thinking and groupthink mitigation techniques, and developing a systematic approach for applying them to complex problems.
They also began assembling teams tasked with using this system to evaluate strategies, improve plans, and support decision-makers. These red teams were soon offering alternative interpretations of intelligence in Washington and challenging existing strategies for combatting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Their penetrating insights and sobering analyses began raising eyebrows—not just in the United States, but around the world. As such, red team thinking was born.
How Can Modern Businesses Use Red Team Thinking?
I first learned about red team thinking in late 2013.
When I did, I immediately saw the value it could bring to businesses as they struggled to contend with an increasingly complex and rapidly changing marketplace.
The most innovative and disruptive companies already employ some of these same techniques— albeit in a less formal, less systematic way. Critical thinking is part of the DNA of Amazon, Google, and Toyota. The best venture capital firms, such as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, use a similar approach to vet potential investment targets.
Learn about how Toyota used red team thinking to stay relevant against American competitors.
Red team thinking from Jeff Bezos at Amazon.
These are companies that many business strive to emulate, but their methods often obscure and hard to transplant. I saw that red teaming could help established companies think and act like innovative disruptors while also inoculating even successful companies against complacency and groupthink.
So I convinced the Pentagon to allow me to become the first civilian from outside government to take the Army’s Red Team Leader course at Fort Leavenworth, which is regarded as the gold standard for red team training worldwide.
How Red Team Thinking Works
Red team thinking is a framework for top performing businesses to continue thinking like the enemy to stay ahead of competition. Red team thinking is best broken into three distinct phases.
THE ANALYTICAL PHASE: QUESTIONING THE UNQUESTIONABLE
The best red teams check their assumptions at the door, perform a probability analysis to discern the likelihood of success and then map all dependencies and consequences.
THE IMAGINATIVE PHASE: THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
Figuring out the different ways in which the future could unfold and understanding how those possibilities could impact a plan or strategy for better or worse is another aspect of red teaming analysis, one that is becoming increasingly important as the macroenvironment becomes more unpredictable.
THE CONTRARIAN PHASE: CHALLENGING EVERYTHING
Sometimes, our fundamental understanding of the problem a strategy or plan is designed to address is wrong. Too often, alternative perspectives within an organization are suppressed by groupthink or the internal politics of the organization.
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We would love to join forces. Visit red team thinking consulting for more information on how we might work together.
Or order your copy of my book, Red Teaming.