What is Red Teaming?

Where does Red Teaming come from, and why is this method interesting for companies? 

Every day you make a multitude of decisions: Some are far-reaching, some are relatively unimportant, some are risky, some are incidental. You make decisions alone, with your team, gladly, unwillingly, or under pressure. And you probably don't reflect based on which assumptions, information, or patterns you decided. This is where Red Teaming comes into play because this method enables you to consciously and critically question decisions and to increase the quality of your choices.

Where Red Teaming comes from

Red Teaming is a method initially introduced by the US military to bring about better decisions. In many situations at that time; the background is that decisions that were made did not lead to the appropriate or desired success. Certain factors were not taken into account, or specific information was deemed unlikely. In the follow-up, it was found that with the help of additional data and correspondingly better evaluation, the successes could have been better or defeats need not have occurred at all. As a result, because of terrorist attacks such as 9/11, the vital requirement was first to question the planned strategies designed and then actually make the right decisions.

On one side is the blue team, i.e., those who defend something. The opposing side, the red team, or the red cell, tries to exploit weak points and attack. At first glance, this sounds very military, but you can also apply it to other types of organizations.

Red Teaming in Business

Strategies that were used initially for military purposes are also widely used in business. For example, think of books like "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, which was considered management literature many years ago. Similar books, which originated in military strategic planning, were later transferred to business. This shows that military action and thinking can also be applied to everyday business life. If you look at the whole thing a bit more figuratively, there are many examples that a Red Team approach would have meant that the world might look a bit different even in today's business world.

A few recent examples illustrate this: even during the financial crisis, many people assumed that a bank as big as "Lehman Brothers" would never go bankrupt. Today we are smarter. We know that this can happen. For example, let's take the former tec-giant Nokia- The undisputed market leader in cell phones. And even though it was easy to see when Apple was developing a smartphone and wanted to bring it to market, they were instead smiled at. After all, what could a computer manufacturer possibly be able to get to market in the face of a globally active telephone specialist? Even today, we are smarter and know better. These decisions and statements usually stem from assumptions that have not been questioned.

Using Red Teaming for successful decisions

Red Teaming is a concept that has been established in the military environment for decades and can also be used in companies to make better decisions. Whether it's a response to market changes, reorganization, process design, or even organizational development, most decisions are made based on what the Group wants in senior management, what the senior executives suggest, and what everyone knows about the organization and their operating environment. This is how the plan is designed, accepted, and then later put into practice. So far, so good. What happens: It fails. And this is precisely where the Red Teaming approach comes into play. It demands and promotes a kind of mental agility to be able to see problems from different perspectives. To get a better assessment of complex situations and thus to be able to find a better understanding of the available options one may have.

What is Red Teaming and why should every company use this approach?

Imagine a manager convening a meeting of key employees to develop an operational plan for the coming year. All persons working in the same environment have received a similar education, usually with excellent grades, and share everyday experiences in a hierarchical framework. The whole process seems to run smoothly. Of course, there are opinions discussed in between, but there is an adopted plan in the end.

Most decisions are made based on what the Group wants in the manager's opinion, what the managers suggest, and what everyone knows about the organization and their operating environment. This is how the plan is designed, accepted, and then later put into practice. So far, so good. But then it happens: the plan fails. Why is that, and what could have been done to increase the chances of success?

Why plans fail

The group that came up with this plan may have misunderstood what the executive or manager wanted. Or, what everyone thought they knew might have been wrong. Or maybe they did it the way they always did it. What worked well in the past may not have been so bad. But if we take a closer look at the meaning of Albert Einstein's quote, for example, this also means that we must always find new ways to be successful in the future.

"What has brought us here will get us nowhere"

Albert Einstein

It is possible that ambiguous and complex issues were ignored in the planning and thought they might not play a role. Maybe there was even someone on the team who saw a problem but perhaps kept silent for fear of standing out. Changing external factors, such as a competitor's actions, may also have caused the plan to fail.

Over the years, every person develops behavioral and thought patterns that help them achieve goals with the least effort. We learn very early in life that we can have tremendous success if we do more of our friends. This works exceptionally well when we work together without many confrontations. Thus, many agreements lead to a compromise, but this does not always have to be the best.

We try to get along with each other to save time and energy, develop shortcuts, and apply solutions we know from the past when we encountered similar problems. We automatically apply the tried and tested solutions to the current situation, even if the answers do not fit 100%. We assume that we know more than we actually know. And when we don't know something, we make assumptions. If we have too many beliefs and do not question them, we may be walking in the wrong direction without realizing it.

We also make many small decisions that, individually seen, are close enough to the goal, i.e., are sufficient. But if we put them all together to form one big picture, it is precisely these many small deviations that ultimately lead to the failure of the entire plan. We always follow the familiar and assume that others share our views, convictions, and tendencies. The good thing about Red Teaming is that you can start at this point and ultimately make better decisions with its help.

What exactly is Red Teaming?

Red Teaming is a flexible and cognitive approach to thinking and planning specifically tailored to each organization and situation. It is usually carried out by qualified practitioners, i.e., a special team within an organization that is only concerned with questioning specific issues and paying close attention to the little things that perhaps nobody has seen before.

Several structured tools and techniques exist to ask better questions, question explicit and implicit assumptions, uncover information and develop alternatives that may not have been recognized or seen before. Red Teaming encourages and demands a kind of "strong mental agility" to see problems from different perspectives, to get a better assessment of tricky situations, and to find a better understanding of the available options one may have.

The approach is not to say that we are against it in principle, or that everything we have done so far is terrible. It is about contrary thinking, lateral thinking, but not entirely against it. It is only a matter of looking at what other possibilities there are, which points have not been considered so far, and maybe the assumptions we have made are not as valid as previously thought.


André Daus Red Teaming
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50733 Koeln

T: +49 (221) 16 53 18-0

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