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Decision Preconditions

A large portion of what red teaming is about is exploring the other side of an issue and attempting to break paradigms that may be detrimental to a plan. COL (ret.) Gregory Fontenot from the Army’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies describes the red teaming process as a structured and iterative process that ultimately provides a commander a capability to continuously improve upon a plan. He continues to say that the operational environment, plans, and operations could all benefit by repeated challenges to validity and applicability. Colonel Fontenot espouses continual re-evaluation of the typical way we do business.1 The red team must look at the fight through the eyes and culture of the enemy. This particular method, executed properly and coupled with a superior intelligence gathering plan, can yield outstanding results.

Look Inward First

Red team advisors must place emphasis on making sure planning groups don’t get bogged down in “group think.” They must continually challenge assumptions. In short, the process looks at the decisions we make at both the macro and micro levels and attempts to determine the next step, or what COL Fontenot says is “the next right thing.” If an advisor is charged with having to review decisions and look for gaps in understanding or a problem that has been assumed away, it pays great dividends to understand how the leader initially came to his or her decision.
      The military has a very structured and regimented process for coming to a decision. Numerical values are assigned to particular courses of action in weighing acceptability, suitability, and feasibility in order to distinguish the course of action from the other plans. The Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) is exhaustive and takes great pains to ensure that contingency plans as well as alternative plans are fully explored. As strict as the MDMP process is, there are inherent flaws that, if not properly addressed, can negate the processes intended to make decision making successful.

What to Look For?

An accomplished member of a red team must understand that each leader already has a set of behaviors and inclinations that will drive his or her decision making. The question remains, then, how to best examine the decision maker’s motivation? Prevailing research indicates that decision makers are more affected by pre-existing mindsets than they might think. Authors like Malcom Gladwell and Dan Ariely are now examining the mental biases or predilections that one retains even before all the facts are discovered.2
      These “decision preconditions” are often different for each person in the Army. They can range from a set of values that were emplaced early as the leader grew up, all the way to inculcated cultural norms of the organization they work for. As a red team operator, it is vital to determine what is going on inside the heads of the people doing the planning and deciding. Organizations conducting day-to-day operations in peacetime and war environments contend with these variables daily.
      A brigade planning staff is populated with many personalities that all have a vital part to play in the planning and execution of an operation. The one thing that can always be counted on is that staffs at all levels of the military continually change. People move and soldiers are transferred; nothing is completely constant from deployment to deployment. Personnel turbulence and impending operations create a sense of urgency.
      A key task that red team personnel should concern themselves with is the determination of individual motivations of the staff they advise. The Defense Science Board, in their 2003 assessment of the role of red teaming, states that one of the primary jobs a red team must do is to hedge against inexperience.3 This is not to suggest that the staff doesn’t have enough experience to carry out the job, merely that a set of outside eyes might better solve organizational friction before it becomes a problem. MDMP is focused on coming up with a final course of action. Having a view on how the leadership thinks will shed some light on possible assumptions and preconceived notions that will inevitably affect the final product.

How Does a Red Teamer Cut to the Chase?

Too often, organizations are short on time. In the current operational environment, military units tend to be either resetting from a deployment or performing training in order to deploy in less than a year. Incoming leaders and staff must hit the ground running. This presents a significant problem for the red teamer. How can a red team best determine possible decision preconditions in staff members that are virtual strangers in a time constrained environment? Mark Mateski, in a Red Team Journal article, discusses questions that are based on Rittel’s Issue Based Information System (IBIS).4 These questions serve as a solid frame a red teamer can apply during iterative analysis. While time spent with decision makers will tend to yield insight on pre-existing notions, often the red team member will not be afforded that kind of time. Some well targeted questions could yield a large amount of information about the decision maker in a short time.
      Decision preconditions can best be determined by asking three very pointed questions that Rittel would term “stakeholder questions.” These questions are aimed at determining personal motivation. Personal motivation can prove to be one of the best determinants of what the mission is perceived to be and how a leader is planning to accomplish it. If asked quickly and unobtrusively, the red team operator will have a very solid basis to understand the staff member they are working with.

The Questions

The first question is best posed shortly after the staff has received their mission. This question, “What does mission success look like?” is slightly vague but leaves a large amount of room to determine what the leader’s initial mental picture looks like. The answer to this question is the first key building block to understanding what is going on in the mind of the staff member the red team is assisting. Dan Ariely noted in his book Predictably Irrational that a great deal of decisions are anchored in past and current perceptions of the problem.5 The leader will rarely depart from the anchor point except to build on or reinforce past experiences. The only time the decision maker might change their anchor point is if they have witnessed multiple instances that contradict their initial understanding.
      This anchor point is the starting position from which they will begin to formulate the solutions to impending missions/operations. In the military, commanders already do this when they ask a staff for a “back brief.” The commander is attempting to determine if the staff fully understands what he or she is directing them to do. The red team member can save a great deal of time if they are present during such back briefs. It is important to note that a back brief will often come with further guidance from the commander with more detail. It is vital that the red team member notes all of the items discussed during a back brief. This is the initial anchor that will still serve as the starting point for the staff member’s thought process.
      The second question should be posed informally and can be worded many different ways. The essence of the question should be “What is the overarching purpose of this operation?” The reason for posing this question is to gain an understanding on how the staff member plans to nest the operation with higher headquarters’ intent. In short, the red team needs to know if the staff member understands the bigger picture. A staff member who does not embrace the entire project is not thinking far enough ahead to be proactive. A proactive decision maker must always have a picture of the future in their head. The answer to this question will yield the mindset of the staff member and give a clue as to how they are planning to conclude the operation.
      The final question’s placement is just as important as the information it will yield. The answer to “What’s next after this?” should not be answered simply. Simplistic positive answers tend to assume complete and total victory. One of the primary tenets espoused by the Army’s Red Team Academy is to guard against assuming away a problem. This question is crucial because it will determine if the staff member is making decisions that involve the immediate future; it also addresses what the endgame will look like. The red team operator should pursue the answer to this question not just once but all the way though the point of execution. The reason for this is that the operational and tactical commander will need the assistance of a fully developed picture after major operations have concluded. Specifically, this question is trying to determine if there is a definitive exit strategy. The staff and commander can benefit from organized decision making that has already put some thought into it.


The proper questions can make a red teamer’s job exponentially easier. The primary concern is determining the motivations of the staff and where their collective thinking is leading them. One of the best luxuries afforded to a red team member is that they can remain detached from the pressures and decision preconditions that exist for decision makers. The real value of this comes when red teamers ask the previously identified questions concerning what a leader believes will happen, why it is happening, and what to do when it is all over. Armed with this knowledge, the red teamer will be able to act even more proactively in the planning and execution process. They can ensure the staff and commanders plan for the unexpected even if they haven’t thought of it.

MAJ James Montgomery is an Air Defense Officer with 12 years of service in the U.S. Army. James is currently enrolled in the Army’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies and is on orders to the Warrior Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. His areas of interest are decision science and ethics. James is a research partner with the D. J. Willower Center for the Study of Leadership and Ethics of the University Council of Educational Administration (UCEA). He deployed as a Military Transition Team Leader in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. James received a masters in educational leadership with a concentration on ethics from The Pennsylvania State University in 2006.

  1. COL (ret.) Gregory Fontenot, “Seeing Red: Creating a Red-Team Capability for the Blue Force,” Military Review, September-October 2005. []
  2. See Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005 and Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, New York: HarperCollins, 2008. []
  3. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Final Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on the Role and Status of DoD Red-Teaming Activities, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003. []
  4. Mark Mateski, “The Power of a Good Question,” Red Team Journal, December 2008: []
  5. Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, New York: HarperCollins, 2008. []