Red Teaming Law #45 stands as a warning to every organization, large and small. It’s a call to consider carefully things that “can’t be said.” We’re not talking here about crude or insulting things; rather, we’re talking about things that might sound valid to an outsider but just won’t fly within the organization. These sorts of things are typically so encrusted with cultural barnacles that most members of the organization have forgotten why they can’t be said and typically respond to their occasional presence with widely accepted but unchallenged platitudes (things like “We just don’t do it that way here” or “That’s just the way it is”). Another way to frame Law #45 is “That’s so obvious that we won’t waste any thinking responding to it.”
If you see this happening within your organization, it’s time to don your red teaming hat. A well-accepted and easy-to-use tool you can apply to these sorts of issues is Sakichi Toyoda’s “Five Whys.” So, for example …
ACCULTURATED NON-THINKER (ANT): “We just don’t do it that way here.”
RED TEAMER (RT): “Why?”
ANT: “Because that’s just the wrong way to do it.”
ANT: “Because we’ve always done it this way.”
ANT: “Because this is how it was done when I got here.”
ANT: “Because someone decided this was the best method.”
Now you’re getting closer to the real issues. Who decided it was the best method, and why? Do the conditions still hold? What’s changed between then and now?
Just be cautious when asking the “Five Whys.” Asking them all at once without warning can annoy even the most patient person. Think about other ways to get at the interesting, purposeful questions without annoying your colleagues unnecessarily. For example, you might want to run the “Five Whys” in your head to arrive at the deeper questions and then ask those.
Another approach is to employ the classic question “What If?” Sometimes it pays to ask it innocently followed immediately by a well-conceived hypothetical. (“What if our competitor were to do this?”) Timing is also important. For instance, don’t use the “What If” after just having used the “Five Whys.” Your audience will be unreceptive. Also, if you don’t get a thoughtful answer, don’t go around repeating the same “What If?” question all day to anyone who will listen. Wait until the audience and timing is right, and then employ your “What If?” strategically for maximum effect.
Simple though these techniques are, it should also be clear that they require a good measure of savvy interpersonal skills to employ effectively. Again, timing is critical as is the ability to choose the right audience. Sometimes it pays to work bottom-up (find allies and build consensus), and sometimes it pays to work top down (persuade a senior manager). Don’t expect to change the culture in a day, and don’t expect everyone to be your friend.
If, despite your best and most patient efforts, your colleagues still persist in platitudes, it might be time to find another organization, one that appreciates the red teaming mindset. After all, “What if I were to quit?” is a question just about every organization understands.