Red Teaming and Alternative Analysis


Defined loosely, red teaming is the practice of viewing a problem from an adversary or competitor’s perspective. The goal of most red teams is to enhance decision making, either by specifying the adversary’s preferences and strategies or by simply acting as a devil’s advocate. Red teaming may be more or less structured, and a wide range of approaches exists. In the past several years, red teaming has been applied increasingly to issues of security, although the practice is potentially much broader. Business strategists, for example, can benefit from weighing possible courses of action from a competitor’s point of view.

Alternative analysis is the superclass of techniques of which red teaming may be considered a member. As with red teaming, these techniques are designed to help debias thinking, enhance decision making, and avoid surprise. According to Fishbein and Treverton, “alternative analysis seeks to help analysts and policy-makers stretch their thinking through structured techniques that challenge underlying assumptions and broaden the range of possible outcomes considered.” They further clarify the term by specifying that “Alternative analysis includes techniques to challenge analytic assumptions (e.g. ‘devil’s advocacy’), and those to expand the range of possible outcomes considered (e.g. ‘what-if analysis,’ and ‘alternative scenarios’).”

Despite their many potential advantages, red teaming and alternative analysis are not silver bullets. As one would expect, the quality of the output hinges inter alia on the quality and experience of the team, the team’s approach and toolset, and the overall context of the effort. An overconfident or culturally biased analyst or team will not benefit as much from these approaches as might an analyst or team that employs “actively open-minded thinking,” to use Jonathan Baron’s term. (See, for example, his book Thinking and Deciding.)