What is Red Teaming?

By Bryce G. Hoffman 

Red teaming is a systematic way of making critical and contrarian thinking part of the strategic planning process of any organization. It was developed by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to overcome cognitive bias and groupthink, to force decision makers to challenge their assumptions, and to avoid the “failures of imagination” that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the disastrous wars which followed them.

You may have heard about red teaming in the context of cybersecurity, threat emulation, or physical security. These are related – but different – fields that share a common origin story. When I talk about red teaming, I am talking about decision-support red teaming.

This form of red teaming relies on a battle-tested set of tools designed to probe plans for hidden weaknesses, identify missed opportunities, and uncover unseen threats. Other red teaming techniques help organizations surface alternative perspectives, identify and evaluate unconsidered options, and ensure the best ideas are heard regardless of where they come from in the hierarchy.

Red teaming also helps you think differently about your business and see how customers, competitors, and other key constituencies will react to moves you make in the marketplace before you make them.

“Red teams are established by an enterprise to challenge aspects of that very enterprise’s plans, programs, assumptions, etc. It is this aspect of deliberate challenge that distinguishes red teaming from other management tools.”

~ U.S. Department of Defense

These are potent weapons you can use to attack complacency and create plans with optionality so that you can respond rapidly and effectively to changes in the operating environment. Red teaming is how you stay relevant, keep ahead of your competition, and make your company one of the disruptors, rather than one of the disrupted.


The Origins of Red Teaming

Red teaming’s roots run deep: to the Catholic Church’s “Office of the Devil’s Advocate,” to the kriegsspiel exercises of the Prussian General Staff, and to Israel’s secretive Directorate of Military Intelligence. But the modern decision-support system of red teaming was born out of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

These two events humbled the American military and intelligence agencies and forced them to seek out new ways of thinking.

It 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 reports generated by American red teams were shared with allied forces, other countries saw the value in this contrarian approach and were eager to emulate it. Soon, the British, Canadians, and Australians had established their own red teams.

“Red teaming has become widely used in the UK over the last ten years. It has become recognised as a major aid to decision-making ... and as a valuable tool for commanders at all levels.”

~ U.K. Ministry of Defence

When red teaming was allowed to work, the results were often stunning. The 2007 troop surge in Iraq that led to a dramatic reduction in violence in that war-torn country was one of the first products of red team thinking. Iraq’s subsequent descent into anarchy and the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” were the consequences of abandoning this new way of thinking and a return to a more traditional calculus.


Porting Red Teaming to Business

I first learned about red teaming in late 2013. When I did, I immediately saw the value it could bring to businesses as they struggled to contend with an increasingly volatile 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. These are companies that many businesses strive to emulate, but their methods are 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 U.S. Army’s Red Team Leader course at Fort Leavenworth, which was regarded as the gold standard for red team training worldwide.

After graduating in 2015, I began working with companies in the United States and abroad to port the methods I had learned from the military to business. In 2017, I wrote the book Red Teaming: How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything.

Since then, I and my team have evolved these tools and techniques. We have made them lighter, faster, and easier to use – both for individuals and for small, ad-hoc groups. We call this new approach “Red Team Thinking.” While we still believe a formal red teaming analysis is a useful methodology for stress-testing large-scale strategies, our new approach helps individuals and organizations make better decisions faster in today’s complex and rapidly changing world.

“Red teaming is a vital way for leaders to get the honest answers and alternative perspectives they need to plan better and make their strategies succeed.”

~ Marshall Goldsmith