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Red Teaming for Business Strategy: Five No-Nonsense Tips

If your competitors are red teaming you, they don’t want you to know, and they especially don’t want you to know how they do it. Here are five tips to help you beat them at their own game.

  1. Maintain a risk management plan, and involve your red team. Whether you’re scoping a project or drafting a plan, you should always identify and monitor the associated risks. Your red team is an essential contributor to this activity. It can help identify and characterize the risks you face and do so from the perspective of your competitors. If you’re not sure how to start your risk plan, consider using MITRE’s RiskMatrix spreadsheet. And don’t forget: this isn’t a one-time activity. Monitor the risks, watch for risk triggers, adjust as necessary, and update regularly with the support of your red team.
  2. Map the stakeholders (internal and external). Most old-style red teamers thought primarily in terms of RED (the attacker) and BLUE (the defender). Don’t fall into that trap; it’s so 20th century. One of the highest payoff activities you can undertake is to map the stakeholder system. This system includes not just the stakeholders but their beliefs, concerns, and metrics. Identify goals, and associate metrics with those goals. Note how your metrics may vary internally and externally. Note also how your competitors’ metrics vary from your own (assuming they do). Identify conflicts and agreements among beliefs and goals. Identify areas of uncertainty. Be open to surprises and “a-ha!” moments.
  3. Staff and train your red team. Don’t “just wing it.” As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for, and if you try to red team on the cheap, yes, you’ll get what you pay for. Who should be on your red team? Staff up with people who know how things work in the real world and are willing to say the emperor has no clothes. “Yes men” and corporate clones are not welcome. Mid-level managers are risky: they often have too much to lose by speaking their minds. (Watch a couple episodes of the CBS show “Undercover Boss” to get a sense of how the front office and the front lines can see the world differently.)
          Once you have the right people, teach them how to think. Train them in lateral thinking, systems thinking, creativity, and competitive intelligence. The Red Team Journal Laws of Red Teaming should give you some idea of what separates the superior red teamer from the inferior one. If you want to explore what it means to be a superior red teamer in practice, browse the “See It Like Jones Would” series of essays. Jones was an expert in scientific intelligence during World War II, but he would do just as well as a business strategy red teamer. When you browse the short essays, note how Jones thinks. The patterns are by no means limited to scientific intelligence.
  4. Understand and analyze the perceptual plane. Plans, projects, resources, staff hires, competitor announcements—all of this occurs on a tangible plane. Yes, this plane is extremely complex, made more so by the operation of time. But the tangible plane is not where the great red teamers and strategists do most of their work. For them, the tangible plane represents a system to be manipulated–a system they observe and influence through the perceptual plane. This latter plane is an equally complex system generated by the stakeholders’ fluid perceptions and misperceptions (which underscores why your red team needs to map the stakeholders’ beliefs and concerns). By working in the perceptual plane, sophisticated strategists appear to jump in and out of the tangible plane, as if by magic. They shape your thinking and arrive at your goal ahead of you. They limit your options to the ones they want you to consider. They ambush you with options and strategies you’ve failed to consider. Living only in the tangible plane is kind of like living in a 2D world where the 3D strategist plays by different rules.
          What does this mean in practice? The red team trained to operate in the perceptual plane asks questions such as these: Is everything as it appears to be? What secrets might your competitors be harboring, and how might they leverage them to their advantage? What perceptual advantages do you hold, and how might you leverage them to your advantage? And how do you train your red team to master the perceptual plane? Ask us.
  5. Communicate effectively. Your red team is trained and tasked. You aim them at a thorny problem, and they perform some of the best red teaming strategy analysis of the century. They return to brief your senior board, and they bury their findings in wordy slides and complex spreadsheets. They ring a dozen alarm bells and speak down to you and your colleagues. They leave the boardroom and you shake you head. In what sense is their work now “the best red teaming strategy analysis of the century”? Somewhere between the analysis and the presentation, the value of the activity was lost.
          Return to point 3 (above), and add these skills to the list of training items: risk-based thinking and information design. The red team must understand and think in terms of risks. They need to understand what risk is and how it works. They need to understand the variety of perspectives, definitions, and challenges that attend formal risk analysis. They need to remember that (a) the purpose of red teaming is to inform decisions and (b) alarmist “Chicken Little” expositions are best saved for when the sky really is falling. (Requiring your red team to work with your risk management teams—point 1, above—will help educate your red teamers to the practical realities of risk management.) In short, red teams don’t need to solve the problems they raise, but they do need to prioritize them from a risk perspective. Only then can they communicate clearly and concisely. Finally, you will rarely regret adding an information designer to your red team. It’s the kind of unexpected but winning tactic that will separate your team from your competitor’s, and after all, isn’t that what this is about?

Now that you’re fired up about red teaming, go here and temper your enthusiasm by reviewing some of its constraints and limitations. Again, this is about competition, and the decision maker who understands the limitations of red teaming will tend to outthink the one who doesn’t. And by all means, if you have questions, ask us.

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