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The Other Side of Red Teaming

Like many of you, I sometimes view the bold red teamer as the heroic gunfighter from a 1950s Western movie, defying the officious old guard and righting entrenched wrongs. It’s a romanticized view of challenge analysis that can occasionally inspire a sluggish red team. Nine times out of ten, however, it’s the wrong approach. Instead, the red team should work cooperatively with the enterprise. Standing apart with an attitude of superiority might jump start a red team’s morale, but it almost guarantees long-term irrelevancy.
      I realized this when reading Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble’s insightful book The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. Govindarajan and Trimble address the issue of innovation within the business, but the principles read like a manual on running a red team within any organization. According to the authors,

Special teams dedicated to innovation initiatives inevitably run into conflict with the rest of the organization. The people responsible for the ongoing operations view the innovators as undisciplined upstarts. The innovators dismiss the operations people as bureaucratic dinosaurs.1

      Based on dozens of innovation case studies, Govindarajan and Trimble conclude that the answer is to bring the traditional aspects of the business operations (the “performance engine”) together with the dedicated team of innovators. And how is this done? According to the authors,

There are three steps. First, decide which tasks the performance engine can handle and which you’ll need to hand off to a dedicated team. Second, assemble the right dedicated team. Third, anticipate and mitigate strains in the partnership. Once you have taken these steps, you’ll be in a good position to actually execute on your great ideas.2

      Of course, simply stating the steps is not enough to get you started, but Govindarajan and Trimble spend a whole book filling in the details. I highly encourage both red teamers (representing the innovators) and enterprise managers (representing the performance engine) to read the book. If red teaming is to fulfill its promise, this is a partnership we must all work to improve. After all, red teaming is about much more than simply finding problems; it’s ultimately about helping the enterprise fix them. Red teams that shoot from the hip too often are merely shooting themselves in the foot.

  1. This quote is actually from the authors’ chapter in HBR’s 10 Must Reads: Innovation, p. 13; it closely mirrors statements in their book-length treatment of the subject. []
  2. Ibid., p. 12. []