Red Teaming Wasn’t Inspired by a Zombie Flick: A Red Team Book Review

William M. Duke Written by:
William M. Duke

Red Teaming: Not just a concept in a movie

It probably comes as no surprise that the 2013 film World War Z is fiction. But, it might be necessary to set the record straight about a scene in that film that might seem like it’s true.  In the film, the character portrayed by actor Brad Pitt encounters an Israeli Mossad agent that tells him about the principle of the tenth man to explain how Israel anticipated and prepared for a zombie attack.  In an exchange between the characters, the Mossad agent explains, “If nine of us look at the same information and arrive at the exact same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree. No matter how improbable they seem,” continues the agent, “the tenth man has to start thinking with the assumption that the other nine were wrong.” As attractive and believable as that story might sound, it’s just as fictional as the zombies. But, it’s as apt a description of a behavior that really has been adopted by the U.S., Israeli, and many other nation’s military forces – the red team.

May 2017 marked the release of the second popular work on red teams and red teaming practices aimed at the business manager and leader audience. Micah Zenko’s Red Team (Basic Books, 2015) and Bryce Hoffman’s Red Teaming (Crown Business/Penguin, 2017) are similar and, to some extent, complementary works. You can buy them . . . or you can get a third one for free! The U.S. Army’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) publishes what was originally known as The Red Team Handbook but is now officially titled The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook. Anyone can easily search for it online and download the 250-page document.

Red Teaming improves your plan

So, what is a red team? Basically, red teams are a plan and decision-making improvement tool. With apologies to BASF, red teams don’t make the plans you execute; they make the plans you execute better. For those that have had red team training from Afterburner, Inc. and applied it in their planning processes, the red teaming described in the works named above will seem quite different. If you have worked with us, you know that we believe simplicity beats complexity – that, if it isn’t simple, it isn’t scalable and, if it isn’t scalable, it can’t truly transform an organization into a high-performing one. That’s why we teach a simplified form of red teaming. The description of red teaming that you will find in these books is a much more formal, time-consuming, and specialized version that requires intensive training and structured programming. However, we believe both types of red teaming are valuable.

So, first let’s review the simple form we teach at Afterburner and then move on to the advanced version with a review of the available works. Red teaming in Flawless Execution, our proprietary methodology, is an additional step in the strategic planning process that calls in a handful of people that have not been part of the planning process to provide respectful criticism of the plan and expose its perceptible flaws. It’s a concise process that requires little formal training. It can be completed in minutes and conducted frequently across an organization. The result is often a dramatically improved plan with an increased chance of success. In addition to plan improvement, its primary benefits are that it can be used on every plan produced in an organization which drives a culture that respects diverse ideas and perspectives and softens the rigidity of hierarchies that stifle agility and innovation.

The most significant difference between our simple form and the form described in the books reviewed is that the form of red teaming they advocate is, by their own admission, not scalable as an organization-wide improvement tool. Instead, it is a highly cumbersome, yet powerful weapon in the arsenal of high-performance. The simple red teaming form in Flawless Execution is like a pocket knife. It has infinite daily uses. The more formal type is like a broadsword. You only draw it from its sheath upon . . . ahem . . . special occasions.

This more intensive form of red teaming is cumbersome for several reasons. First and foremost, it is because the members of a red team must receive intensive formal training in critical thinking skills before they can function effectively.  That’s why the U.S. Army changed the name of its red team handbook to reflect the centrality of critical thinking skills. For the Army, red team training is a program lasting eighteen weeks for leaders and upwards of half that for members. Second, it requires much more time because it is a rigorous assessment of a plan or decision utilizing a wide variety of specialized, cognitive tools. Micah Zenko, author of Red Team, calls these tools a ‘bag of tricks’ while Bryce Hoffman, author of Red Teaming, compares them to a golf bag full of clubs. As a result, only major and strategic level plans and decisions are practical to submit to a red team for review. Thus, they are not for everyday use although their positive impact upon the organization can be enormous.

With the difference between the simple and scalable form of red teaming we advocate and this more robust but cumbersome form set, we can review the existing literature. Let’s begin with the Applied Critical Thinking Handbook that anyone can download for free. It’s hard to beat a free, well-written, and highly practical work. You will find a more detailed and robust discussion of the many cognitive tools that professional red teams use than in any of the other works. For example, you can find guidance on how to conduct a commonly used tool like SWOT analysis or a more obscure and complicated one like TRIZ or String of Pearls. You will also get a lucid discussion of what red teams are, what they do, the value they provide, and how they provide it. But, this handbook is written for military audiences. While it is mostly applicable and comprehensible to a general audience, the reader that is unfamiliar with military structure and operations will encounter some difficulty. Still, it’s a great reference guide to the ‘bag of tricks’ used by red teams. Since it’s free, why not download it and thumb through its offerings? If you like what you see, you might want to purchase Zenko or Hoffman’s book. So, let’s turn to these works next.

Micah Zenko, a senior fellow for The Council on Foreign Relations, published Red Team in 2015. His book is a book about red teaming. Unlike the U.S. Army handbook, you won’t learn much about how to red team, but you will get an excellent discussion of its value and how the basic concept is being used in a wide variety of industries. You will also get a good discussion of best practices and considerations for establishing formal red teams in your organization. The stories are fascinating and well-written. So, as a compelling argument for red teaming, and as entertainment, his book is a great read. But, if you are looking for a more instructive work, a how-to book, then you will want to look elsewhere.

That brings us to the most recent work on red teams and, of the three discussed herein, the one that gets our highest recommendation. Bryce Hoffman’s Red Teaming is hot off the press and strikes a perfect balance between the instructive nature of the Applied Critical Thinking Handbook and Zenko’s Red Team. The reader will be struck, however, by the similarities between Red Team and Red Teaming. Hoffman clearly had the opportunity to review Zenko’s work and improve upon it by providing a more practical book while maintaining its compelling and entertaining qualities. Hoffman tells some of the same stories that Zenko does including the story of the tenth man while discussions of best practices are essentially the same. What differs between these two works is the review of the set of cognitive tools used by red teams. Though not as exhaustive as the Army’s handbook, Hoffman does an excellent job of presenting the most relevant and often used tools while explaining how to use them.

Read up on Red Teaming

We recommend Hoffman’s Red Teaming for the reader that wants a well-rounded, compelling and readable book because it combines the practical advice provided in the U.S. Army’s Applied Critical Thinking Handbook with the fascinating and entertaining argument one finds in Zenko’s Red Team.  A better recommendation, though, is to read them both and then download the Army’s handbook as a reference manual. That will build a great red teaming library and provide an experience that will make anyone a better red team member whether you are serving in the simple form that we at Afterburner advocate or in the more robust version that is the subject of these works.

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The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook, 7th Edition. University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. Micah Zenko (Basic Books, 2015).

Red Teaming: How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything. Bryce G. Hoffman (Crown Business / Penguin, 2017).