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The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Why Businesses Need Red Teaming

Mar 20, 2020

If you are a corporate leader anywhere in the world right now, I’m guessing you’ve dusted off your business continuity plan, read it and found it woefully wanting. That is because most of us, when planning for “worst case scenarios,” are unable to conceive of just how bad things could get.

Cognitive psychologists have a term for this: normalcy bias. And it’s just the sort of thing red teaming was designed to overcome.

As I describe in my book of the same name, decision support red teaming was born in the crucible of 9/11 when what was subsequently described as a systemic “failure of imagination” by U.S. intelligence agencies opened the door for the worst terrorist attack in American history.

The CIA was one of the agencies that dropped the ball. But not for long.

As they were still pulling victims out of the ruins of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was setting up a group within the CIA called the “Red Cell.” Made up of contrarian thinkers who were accustomed to thinking differently about threats to national security, its mission was to challenge the prevailing wisdom on the agency and provide alternative analysis of the intelligence it collected.

The Red Cell is credited with helping thwart a number of subsequent terrorist attacks against the United States. It was deemed so immediately effective that the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandated red teaming for all U.S. intelligence agencies.

What is red teaming?

You may have encountered the term “red teaming” before in the context of cybersecurity. But what I am referring to here is what is formally known as “decision support red teaming.”

Decision support red teaming is a systematic way of making critical and contrarian thinking part of the strategic planning process of any organization. It provides a robust set of tools designed to challenge your assumptions, expose hidden threats, identify missed opportunities, and stress-test your strategies. Red teaming also includes an array of groupthink mitigation techniques designed find the best ideas, regardless of where they come from within your organization. 

While originally developed by and for the military and intelligence agencies, I have found that these tools and techniques can be adapted to help business leaders think differently about their companies and turn disruptive events to their advantage, or at least prevent these events from putting them out of business.

Events like the present pandemic.

For example, you can use a tool such as Key Assumptions Check to identify and pressure test the core assumptions that underly your business strategy or plan and make sure they are likely to remain valid even under the trying conditions created by the coronavirus outbreak. Or you could use a technique such as Pre-Mortem Analysis to better understand how those plans could fail and what you can do proactively to prevent that failure.

There are many tools like these in the red teaming toolkit, all of which are ideally suited to helping organizations navigate the VUCA world we now inhabit. But they only work if you use them.

Don’t react, red team

A few days ago, Seth Godin shared a powerful insight in his blog. “When things are uncertain, it’s easy to react,” he wrote. “(Reacting) gives us visceral satisfaction and emotional release, and it almost always leads to bad outcomes.”

It reminded me of a mantra that I often share with the executives I work with: Bad leaders react, good leaders plan, and great leaders think

In times such as these, it is so tempting to react. But it’s a lot better to think. Red teaming provides a methodology for that cognitive process – a framework for evaluating the sort of complex problems posed by this pandemic, and the tools necessary for solving them.

Right now, business leaders all over the world are succumbing to their own failures of imagination. They are telling themselves, “The coronavirus can’t really be that bad. More people died last year from the flu. Everybody is just overreacting.”

They’re wrong.

The coronavirus is that bad.

The coronavirus is worse than the flu.

And regardless of whether people are overreacting or just doing what is necessary to contain the pandemic, the impact of the actions already taken by governments at the local, state and national level worldwide are already going to disrupt every business – even if the pandemic is contained and coronavirus cured tomorrow.

Make no mistake about it: This is an existential threat to your business.

If you want to survive it, you need to think your way through it.

Are you ready to become a Red Team Thinker? Join us for the RTT Boot Camp™.

Originally published on Forbes.com

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