How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything

Published on
May 17, 2017
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We live in an age of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, one which is forcing companies around the world to rethink their business models, reevaluate their strategies, and rewrite their rule books.

Every day brings new opportunities, but also new challenges and new competitors. The global geopolitical landscape is shifting below our feet. Trade agreements are being rewritten. New technologies are allowing startups to disrupt established industries.

Many of the business tools we have relied on for decades no longer work in a world where incremental improvement is not enough to stay in business, let alone succeed in it. We need new processes, new methodologies, and new ways of thinking if we are to become one of the disruptors, rather than one of the disrupted.

One of the most promising and powerful of these new approaches is red teaming—a system developed by the military and intelligence agencies after 9/11 to help organizations stress-test their strategies, challenge their assumptions, and make better decisions.

Red teaming is a systematic way of making critical and contrarian thinking part of the strategic planning process of any organization. It is a battle-tested set of tools and processes designed to probe plans for hidden weaknesses, identify missed opportunities, and uncover unseen threats. These are precisely the sort of things competitors and other adversaries do to us when they try to beat us at our own game. By doing them to ourselves first, we can beat them to the punch.

At the same time, red teaming offers techniques to help organizations surface alternative perspectives, identify and evaluate unconsidered options, and ensure the best ideas are heard regardless of where they come from in the hierarchy. These are potent weapons you can use to attack groupthink and complacency head-on, before your competitors turn those weaknesses to their advantage.

Red teaming also helps you think differently about your business and see how customers, competitors, and other key constituencies will react to moves you make in the marketplace—before you make them. It can also show you how to turn disruptive events to your advantage. Red teaming is how you stay relevant, keep ahead of your competition, and cope with an increasingly uncertain world.

Red teaming was developed by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in the wake of 9/11 and the disastrous wars which followed. They were humbled by these events. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and their stunning victory in a one-sided war with Iraq in 1991, they had believed America’s technological superiority and mastery of information would guarantee her future security at home and victory abroad. In the ruins of the twin towers and the short-lived victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, they discovered just how wrong they were.

Drawing on the latest research in cognitive psychology and human decision making, the CIA and the U.S. Army began pulling together an array of critical thinking and groupthink mitigation techniques and developing a systematic approach for applying them to complex problems. They also began assembling teams tasked with using this system to evaluate strategies, improve plans, and support decision-makers.

Red teaming proved so successful that allied militaries in Canada, the U.K., Australia and elsewhere soon began establishing their own red teams.

I first learned about red teaming in late 2013. When I did, I immediately saw the value it could bring to businesses as they struggled to contend with an increasingly complex and rapidly changing marketplace.

The most innovative and disruptive companies already employ some of these same techniques—albeit in a less formal, less systematic way. Critical thinking is part of the DNA of Amazon, Google and Toyota. The best venture capital firms, such as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, use a similar approach to vet potential investment targets. These are companies that many business strive to emulate, but their methods are often obscure and hard to transplant.

I saw that red teaming could help established companies think and act like innovative disruptors while also inoculating even successful companies against complacency and groupthink. So I convinced the Pentagon to allow me to become the first civilian from outside government to take the Army’s Red Team Leader course at Fort Leavenworth, which is regarded as the gold standard for red team training worldwide. After graduating in 2015, I began working with companies in the United States and abroad to port the methods I had learned from the military to business.

Red teaming works by breaking a strategy or plan down into the assumptions it is based on, then challenging those assumptions to make sure they are really true and likely to remain so under all conditions. At the same time, red teaming uses an array of groupthink mitigation techniques to get at the truth that exists inside an organization, regardless of where it lies in the hierarchy, and develop additional options. Finally, red teaming uses contrarian analysis to figure out whether the original plan, one of these new alternatives or some combination of the two is the best way forward for the organization.

It is these aspects of deliberate challenge, groupthink mitigation and contrarian analysis that make red teaming so different from other management systems and planning tools—and so effective.

I provide a comprehensive overview of all these tools and techniques in my book, as well as a roadmap you can follow to use them in your own organization. If you do, you will make your plans better and your decisions sounder.

But be warned: red teaming is not for everyone.

Red teaming is for companies that are not satisfied with their success. It is for organizations that know they can always do more, go farther and fly higher. If you are happy with where you are and do not want to change, then don’t red team. Just sit back and wait for one of your competitors to do it for you.

BRYCE G. HOFFMAN is a bestselling author, speaker and consultant who helps companies around the world plan better and global leaders lead better by applying innovative systems from the worlds of business and the military. He is the author of the 2012 bestseller, American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company and Red Teaming: How Your Business Can Conquer The Competition By Challenging Everything (Crown Business, May 2017).