Red Teaming and 'The Library of Babel'
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story "The Library of Babel" is not easy to forget. Once you’ve read it, the concept will stick in your brain and pop up at random times to trigger satisfyingly unresolvable and byzantine musings.
I encourage you to read the story. In a nutshell, it involves an allegedly infinite library of all possible books, shelf upon shelf, stacked in endless hexagons. Most of the books appear to be utter nonsense. Scattered among the nonsense, however, are assumed to be a few of tremendous value. The librarians who inhabit the infinite library are free to spend their lives seeking meaning in the library. To experience a bit of the frustration and wonder one of these imaginary librarians might feel, take a moment to browse or even search the online Library of Babel.) This blog post, for example, was there before I started writing it. It’s actually a bit unsettling. (You can search up to 3,200 characters, so technically I suppose we can verify that 3,200-character chunks of this blog post are there.)
The practice of red teaming is a bit like helping a client find meaning in a very large finite library. (I’ve shifted to a very large finite library because the odds of finding a book of good ideas in the infinite library recedes to zero.) Among the ideas, strategies, tactics, and plans that swirl about in the heads of employees every day, some ideas are utter nonsense and some represent direct answers to risks and opportunities facing the client. The point is that in any given situation, answers, solutions, and even intuitive tipoffs are already there. Part of a red teamer’s job is to help a client find the good ideas and separate them from the dross. (Indeed, you might call this function the essence of red teaming.)
This aligns with my experience. More than once I’ve encountered situations in which employees and managers already knew what the red team later uncovered; the real problem in these cases was that no one was listening. This cries out for a cultural fix, without which good ideas will stagnate—with or without red teaming. Despite the fact that we’ve all probably experienced working for leadership that refuses to listen, some organizations do in fact exhibit a listening culture. In American Icon, Bryce Hoffman’s book on the rise of Ford under CEO Alan Mullaly, we find this example:
Mulally was quick to appreciate the immense—and too often untapped—pool of talent that surrounded him at Ford. When he found someone who knew what was going on and was not afraid to say so, he brought that person into his office and listened….
Mulally reinvigorated Ford’s culture so that good ideas would generally receive a better hearing. This matches key lessons from General McChrystal’s Team of Teams, where a culture of information sharing and respect allowed good ideas to emerge and inform better decisions. Particularly in the latter half of the book, we read of McChrystal’s efforts to share information and empower lower-level decision making. Setting ego aside, he eschewed the “heroic” model of all-knowing leadership and opted for a command model that resembled the German command model of Auftragstaktik. (Mulally and McChrystal's cases were different, as were their command models. From what I can tell from the two books, McChrystal's command philosophy more fully resembled traditional Auftragstaktik. I plan to address these differences in a future post.)
A healthy culture where employees are can ask frank and honest questions, share information freely, and expect to be heard can yield what we might call organic or bottom-up red teaming, where many of the types of ideas red teams generate emerge naturally from the organization itself. This doesn’t mean that a dedicated red team offers no value in such an organization, but it does mean that leadership can ideally reserve the red team for specific problems of interest. It also means that when a dedicated red team does operate, leadership is much more likely to listen to its findings.
A particularly disheartening situation occurs when you work for an organization that may embrace the concept of red teaming but nonetheless tolerates a toxic culture of bureaucratic infighting, micromanagement, and information hording. Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it happens. Working at such an organization is akin to toiling in the Library of Babel and finding a uniquely valuable book only to be told to put the book back on the shelf.
We don’t have to look very hard to find examples of toxic culture, where bureaucratic infighting, micromanagement, and information hording stimulate poor decisions. Just this past weekend, I was reading Colonel Hans von Luck’s fascinating memoir Panzer Commander. Von Luck recounts how General Rommel sent him from North Africa to Germany to present Hitler with one final appeal to allow Rommel to execute a North African “Dunkirk” and extract as many troops as possible to Sicily. Rommel’s idea was good; Hitler wouldn’t listen—von Luck wasn’t even allowed to present the case.
Part of the thrill of red teaming springs from the freedom to explore, even when that freedom occasionally leads the red teamer down an otherwise pointless path. The same principle applies to employees of all types at organizations of all types. The ideas are there, or there to be found. Sometimes they’re even expressed, repeatedly. The trick is to nurture a culture that (a) encourages employees to generate the ideas and share them and (b) teaches leaders to listen.
Organizations that understand this excel. They metaphorically scour (a finite approximation of) the Library of Babel daily, find meaning in it, and act on that meaning. By all accounts, Mulally created this sort of culture, and so did McChrystal. So too, for the most part, did the German Wehrmacht when practicing Auftragstaktik. As red teamers, we need to do what we can to facilitate this culture in our own organizations. After all, why red team if no one’s listening? (This is the second time we've touched on this topic recently. The first was in my review of Team of Teams.)