Innovation Red Team

I don’t know why the concept of a Red Team isn’t known and applied on a wider basis. It’s a very powerful mode to harden your business and make it more resilient to changing market conditions. You rarely see the concept being applied outside of military, intelligence and security. Maybe I inspire a few to try.

What is a Red Team?

The term is a cold-war era artefact and for those too young to know, red was synonymous for Communist states and blue for Non-Communist states. Anyways, during the cold-war, different think tanks and military groups created war games to practice for when things got heated and in those war games the good side was the Blue Team and the enemy was the Red Team. (Interesting of note: Communist states used the same colour designation for their war games, albeit with a different definition of who was the bad side of course)

Other names you can find is Red Cell and a similar concept of Tiger Teams in engineering.

These days the concept is widespread in security, where you can either create or hire Red Teams that have but one goal: find a way to breach the (security) system and steal something in an attempt to find gaps in the counter measures. Penetration testing is probably one kind of red teaming that more people have heard of and the movie Sneakers[1] shows a Red Team for hire.

Eliminate and counter Groupthink

What all those teams have in common is the wish to eliminate groupthink in an organisation. Organisations are very good at lying to themselves, about what is good or bad for the company or business. Strategy is riddled with it. While groupthink is probably a less known term, virtually everybody knows the concept. “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman shows how, amongst other things, groupthink led to most of the devastation of World War I. It’s a great book, but if don’t have the time to read it, here is an eloquent summary by JFK — ok Bruce Greenwood playing JFK in another great movie[2].

Groupthink as I would define it, is when a group starts to reassure itself over and over unfoundedly, accepts and even seeks biases to the point their world view might even clash with reality at which point it is their sheer arrogance keeping them from realising their ignorance. Every organisation develops groupthink to a certain degree. A manager of mine once called it the antibodies to kill the virus of innovation and progress 😂

Be your own competition

Now going away a bit from war games, you might already have an idea where this is going. In business you can form a Red Team that has but one objective: find a way to disrupt your own company.

If done properly, you will create a small cross-functional team of specialists, who can act as generalists. Unfortunately this is a trait all but eliminated in most companies where you have over-specialisation. That’s why you most likely have to hire from the outside. This will however also ensure the group is not tainted by groupthink.

Now, whether they operate as a think-tank, e.g. in a Red Team Design Sprint, or they are given a seed investment by the organisation to form their own fictitious company is up to the decision maker. If you can afford it, you should definitely go all in. From there a lot of things are possible:

In any case, the business organisation has more information to play with and either embrace the change or plan counter measures to deal with upstarts when they arrive.

When to Red Team

My advice is to Red Team when you can, not when you have to. When the organisation is under outside pressure already, you will probably feel the organisational issues left, right and centre — focus on those. Creating a Red Team should be an action not a reaction.

A Red Team is also formidable to explore possible reactions to outside factors. How would a company thrive in a certain context, if they had no baggage. The delta shows you where to take action when the situation arrives.

Additionally a Red Team can only target one certain aspect of the company, maybe one product or service and try to disrupt that.

Finally, it should only be done with the support of the highest ranks in your organisation, otherwise it’s a surefire way to get fired 😉

The strategic implementation is highly depended on your organisation. In theory, if your organisation is large enough, you can constantly run multiple Red Teams with different focus areas. If your innovation budget is limited, you can adapt the Tick-Tock model, where a phase of Red Teaming (tick) is followed by other modes of guided innovation (tock).

The point is to make unknowns known.

What do you think about Red Teaming for business innovation? Let me know via LinkedIn.

  1. One of my all time favourite movies by the way. The cast is stellar! ↩︎

  2. according to various sources the book had a tremendous impact on JFK. ↩︎