[Podcast] The Benefits of the Red Team for Your Strategic Business Plan


You’ve built a plan, now what? 

Duration: 21:45

When building a strategic business plan you will inevitably come up against some challenges. There are two common challenges you are likely to face in the planning stage:

  1. You haven’t  considered all the threats to your plan – you have a bias towards action, instead of stopping to make sure you aren’t missing a threat that could derail your plan.
  2. You are stuck in analysis paralysis – you look over the plan so many times that you delay execution of the plan.

During this episode, hear how the Red Team is the solution to these challenges and how it can help you effectively build mission plans that are ready to execute today.

[Below is a transcript of the episode.]

Joel Neeb: You’ve built your plan, you’re proud because you’ve led your team through a planning process, but is your plan really ready for prime time? Are you ready to go execute it? How do you ensure that your plan is ready and that you haven’t missed something? How do you quickly leverage the wisdom of the rest of the crowd to get the other team members to weigh in? And how do you vet your ideas, your proposals, your projects with the best subject matter experts? Well, in our world that answer was the red team. In today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about how to use the red team to effectively build plans that are ready to be executed right now.

Challenges When Planning

JN: Alright, so you got your team together. You got all the stakeholders in the room and you used our process, used the six steps to mission planning. And you’re excited because you have a plan in hand, but now you’re asking yourself, “Is this plan ready to be executed?” And if you’re like most groups you’re probably running into one of two problems that we typically see. At this stage when they’re putting the plan together, the group either hasn’t considered enough of the threats, meaning they haven’t looked at all of the things that have gone wrong. They’re sitting so close to the problem, so close to the plan that they don’t see the forest for the trees. And there are some glaring omissions that if anybody else were to put eyes on this plan they’d be able to help them out and give them, but because we have this bias towards action, and we’re rushing to build this plan, and we were supposed to have it out there yesterday, we’ve built this plan and it’s not quite ready to execute. That’s challenge number one that we see during the planning process.

JN: Challenge number two, and this is probably more likely with your teams is that you land in analysis-paralysis. This is where you and your team sit back and admire the problem. And even though you have a solution that you’re pretty confident is ready to be executed, the rest of the team says, “Well, not so fast. Let’s slow this down. Let’s have one more conversation about it. Let’s schedule one more meeting next week and you go back out and do some fact-finding and continue to have a dialogue about it.” And you’re part of one of those teams that likes to talk about the problem, likes to talk about the plan, and never really gets to the action phase. Well, the prescription for both of those scenarios whether you’re not identifying enough of the threats or you’re getting caught in analysis-paralysis is the red team in our world.

Fighter Pilot Red Team

JN: Let’s talk a little bit about what that means and where that comes from. As a fighter pilot, we use the red team to hone our skills as pilots and to get better as a team. And the way we use it… The red team was quite literally a group of people that were trained in the tactics and the capabilities of the other nations that we could potentially be up against. And they would train and fly exactly the same way that we knew those nations like to fly. And what we’d do is we’d build a plan on our side and with the rest of our team that we’re flying with, we build this mission plan, we’d go fly it and of course the training simulation against this red team, we call them the red air. And the red air would simulate flying as if they were the enemy and we would learn from that experience what parts of our plan worked well and where we were missing things in our plan to execute it. We would very quickly identify in an environment where there are no consequences where our plan would fail. And was extremely valuable because it did two things for us.

JN: First of all, it pointed out the glaring errors and there were always errors to talk about. There was always something to go back to the drawing board and improve upon with our planning process, but this allowed us to very quickly bring those to the surface so that we could address them. The second thing we did, and this is a little more subtle and it’s not necessarily the thing you think of first, but it gave us confidence because we knew that we just flew our plan against a team that was simulating exactly what we would be up against. And because we put it up against this red air, we knew that even though the plan wasn’t perfect it was close enough and good enough, and if we would make the subtle changes based on our learnings from the simulation that we would be ready. The plan was going to be ready to go execute it in reality.

JN: Quick story on red teaming. We take red teaming so seriously in the military that we dedicate an entire squadron, an entire base basically to it, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. And they’ve built out this huge portion of airspace over the Nevada desert. And we’ll bring in all our squadrons that we’ll fly with and we’ll bring in other nations up to… I’ve been there with 12 nations at a time so a dozen other nations at a time that we’re flying with. And we will go fly against the red air. And it’s called red flag because the entire exercise with an air simulation, with a ground simulation, all the communications simulated, every single element that you can expect to find in a wartime scenario is simulated. We go and with our allies, go fly with hundreds of aircraft up in the air at the same time. And there’s no better simulation for our plans and how they’re gonna be executed and how our missions are gonna turn out than for us to go up against the red air. We may have 80 aircraft that are a part of what we call the blue air, the good guy team, the allied nations that we’re flying with, and we may fly against another 80 aircraft that come from the red air side. And we will simulate these scenarios up in the sky above the Nevada desert and we’ll come back and have a conversation about how it went and learn from that experience and change our tactics, change the way that we fly, change the way that we execute as teams.

JN: Build stronger bonds with our team members because now we have the confidence to go put these plans into motion ’cause we’ve already tried them out against the simulated red team. And you can use similar concepts in the projects you’re supporting at your cooperation. You can use similar concepts to vet your plans to be as effective as possible and to give your teams confidence that they’re ready, to give teams the credibility that we don’t have to go back to the planning room for the 14th time and have one more conversation about what could happen because we’ve already put it in front of a another set of eyes, and we’ve vetted it, and we’ve gotten some great inputs along the way.

JN: And so that’s the whole purpose of a red team, that’s what red air did for us as fighter pilots. The army uses a red team in the same fashion, they go up against a red team and they put it in front of other people that can vet their ideas and make sure that those plans have actually been thought out and are ready to be executed.

Corporate Red Teaming

JN: When we do events at Afterburner for our clients, and we’re teaching them about the various tips and techniques that we can leverage from our previous lives as fighter pilots, and seals, and army rangers, and help them to create elite teams within corporations, there are two takeaways that our clients latch onto the most. I already know. Every single time I go do a presentation, it doesn’t matter if I talk for four or five hours about every single concept that we could possibly address if I talk to them afterward, they’re gonna say there are two things that really stood out. One will be the debrief. And they’ll love the fact that they can use the debrief to look backward and be more effective in the future because they’ve learned from the past and they wanna create that culture. And the second thing is red teaming. They love the red teaming concept. They love the idea that you can vet your ideas with another group, with some subject matter experts to make sure that they’re really ready for prime time before we put that mission plan into action.

JN: And so even though I think there are many other valuable parts of the methodology, those are the things that we end up talking about the most. Lets talk about, in detail, how you can use red teaming, and why all of these corporations that we’ve worked with across the globe have embraced it and used this, and they’ll take pictures of themselves with red hats on and send them to back to us as they continue to use red teaming even after we’re gone and we’re no longer consulting with them, and it’s the thing that lingers and lasts, I think longer than anything else. Let’s talk about what the process of red teaming can do for you and how you would integrate that into your planning proposal. Alright, so for red teaming, remember the concept is that we wanna be able to vet our plans against the subject matter experts. As a fighter pilot, the red air were people that were trained to act as the simulated enemy. And in your case, you wanna put your plan in front of the subject matter experts. I want you to think about who are the experts across the globe that you’d like to have eyes on this plan.

JN: Because unlike the rest of the planning process, if you’ve listened to any of our academics on planning in the past, you know that we highly advocate, strongly advocate, for having everybody in the room during the planning session. This is the one time it doesn’t matter if they’re in the room or not. The red team can be remotely dispersed. We did a red teaming session recently where we had the planning cell in one room, but the red team was in Cork, Ireland and then somebody was woken up in the middle of the night in Singapore to be a part of this red team, but they are the subject matter experts. We got to get their opinion and use them to vet our plan. I also want you to think outside of the box, so in the weeks leading up to your planning session as you’re building up this red team, and the red team should be comprised of about three to five people typically is what we look for. I want you to think outside of the box, so don’t just build the echo chamber. If this is a sales mission, don’t just bring other sales leaders in there to be your red team.

Building a Red Team

JN: I want you to consider bringing somebody from Human Resources. I want you to consider bringing from legal, from marketing. Maybe we should bring in one of our partners in the ecosystem. Or even better, maybe let’s bring in that customer so that we can show them our plan and they can tell us, why the plan that we’re building to serve them, may or may not work. We wanna get those insights. And the most powerful red teaming sessions that I’ve been a part of, are ones where they don’t just look down the hallway and say, “Hey, you wanna be a part of the red team?” And they bring in three random people into the conversation. It’s when they deliberately, in the weeks leading up to it, pick the people that they would like to vet their plan the most, so they get the best insights. We had a great example of how powerful it is to bring in people that are outside of the echo chamber, outside of the functional group that you’re typically working with.

JN: We were recently asked to help build a $100 million mission plans, basically proposals for an organization. And in the weeks leading up to this event, we wanted to pick the red team. And as we’re talking to the leaders and trying to figure out who’s on the red team, of course, they picked their COO, the person who’s in charge of sales for the organization, and they picked two other sales leaders from around the country. And then, they picked their senior vice president of HR, of human resources. And at first glance, the team was saying, “Well, this is a little bit a surprise. We don’t typically have the sales conversations with HR in the room. They’re gonna vet our $100 million sales proposals and it doesn’t, right off the bat, make sense that we have that person on the red team. But I can tell you that beyond a shadow of a doubt the inputs from that senior vice president of HR to the sales team were the most valuable of all the red team members.

JN: And it was because she was able to see this from a different perspective. She was able to say, “Hey, great. $100 million proposal, but how have you considered that you’re not really looking at the cultural component of this and what needs to change within the customers. If they were to see the value in this $100 million opportunity, what are they gonna have to do internally for the transformation that needs to take place?” And it opened the sales team’s eyes to what they were really asking these clients to do. And it wasn’t just a matter of getting them past the point of saying, “Sure this $100 million proposal would be worthwhile to us.” They had to get them the point where they could truly believe they could implement it as well on the back side. And without the senior vice president of HR’s inputs they would never have had that conversation, they never would have made those changes to the plan and it was very powerful to bring in somebody outside of the typical functional group to be a part of that conversation.

How to Red Team

JN: We set it up beforehand, that’s number one. Number two, once you get the team in the room, you’ve built your plan, now realize they gotta vet the plan, so you have to have some version of your plan already ready for them. I recommend that you get it to about to the 60% point. Don’t get it to the perfect plan,  the whole point of this is that red team is gonna help us to fill in the gaps. Don’t spend three weeks building the plan that you’re gonna put in front of the red team, we typically spend between three and four hours max before we put it in front of the red team. Get to that point, we call it about the 60% point, get the red team in the room, and then you’re gonna lay the ground rules. And you’re gonna say, “Hey, red team, thank you very much for joining us both in the room and on the WebEx, or the phone conference that we got you set up with. We’re about to brief you on our plan, we’re really excited about it, we built it really quickly, and we know that it’s not ready to be executed, we know that there are ways we can make it better, and we’re looking for those insights from you. You’re the experts, that’s why we asked you weeks ahead to be a part of this conversation.

JN: But this is not gonna be a dialogue because we wanna respect your time red team. We want you to give us as many inputs as possible, but we’re not gonna debate you on those inputs, so you’re gonna tell us something and we’re just gonna say, “Thank you. ‘Cause the whole point of this is not to get into a debate or a dialogue, it’s all about capturing as many critical assessments as we can and then give you back to your day at that point.” You’re laying the ground rules for the red team. You’re telling them that the expectation is they’re gonna listen to the briefing upfront, no questions until you’re complete with briefing your draft plan, and then, from that point forward, they’re gonna give you their critical analysis. We typically leave some time for what we call clarification questions, and we will answer those questions, but if the red team has specific questions about, “I don’t understand this in your plan.” Or, “What do you mean when you say sales pipeline that’s in the third stage in your plan?” You can answer those questions ’cause those are clarifying, but the moment they start to get into assessment questions, where they’re saying, “I don’t really like this.” Or, “I do like this.” That’s when you need to stop them and say, “Oh, that’s not clarification, that’s assessment.” And that, “We wanna write those down, so let’s make sure we’re getting us those captured.”

JN: And then, when they give you their assessments, we teach them, “We want you to use constructive language.” Don’t say, “Hey, did you think of this?” Or, “Hey, dummy, why didn’t you do it this way?” We want you to say, “Have you considered that there may not be enough time for this plan? Have you considered that there’s another group that’s doing a similar plan and you could borrow ideas from them?” Use the language of construction, teach your red team to say, “Have you considered?” And the reason is the only thing you’re gonna say in response to that red team is, “Thank you.” You’re not gonna say, “Of course, we considered that.” Even though that’s the thing you wanna say. You’re not gonna say, “Yes, and here in the plan you must have missed it, but yes that’s captured.” You are just gonna say, “Thank you” to all of their inputs, so that you can collect as many as possible because the whole point of this is not to get into a dialogue, the whole point of this is to within 20 to 30 minutes complete the red teaming session and then go behind closed doors and make the inputs based off of those critical assessments.

JN: And it’s really important to establish those ground rules with the red team so that they understand what’s expected of them and what the real byproduct is of this conversation. The byproduct, what we’re looking to build from this conversation, is a list of inputs to make our plan better, it’s not to have a debate, it’s not to have another dialogue. We were talking with Procter & Gamble about this red teaming concept, we’re talking to a team there, and one of their leaders raised his hand and he goes, “Oh, I know all about this red teaming. You’re describing what I go through all the time, where I have to go up to my leadership, and I gotta go report into the C-Suites and I tell them about my plan. And then they throw spears at it, and tell me why it’s not the right plan. And I gotta juke and jive and tell them how I’m going to make it better, and here’s what I’m gonna do differently, and to have a debate with them about… ” That’s not it. It should not a painful process at all. If you do this red teaming right, it’s not about you defending what you’ve built. We’re going into it knowing that it’s not a perfect plan. It’s about getting as many quality insights as possible from the team in as short amount of time as possible.

JN: And the only way you can do that, is if the expectation is set upfront that, we’re not going to have a conversation about this, you’re gonna give me the inputs, I’m gonna say, “Thank you” and then I’m gonna go behind closed doors and make those inputs and changes to my plan based on my own assessment of where they belong. Complete the conversation with the red team, and then you clear them off. Say “Thanks red team, these are great insights, we’re gonna implement some of these.” And you clear them off, you shut down the WebEx, or the phone conference, you kick the red team members that are live out of the room, and then you go behind closed doors and you make the adjustments to your plan or not, based on the input. And here’s what I mean. You’re gonna take, let’s say you got 100 inputs from that conversation, on average, you’re gonna find that 80 of those, you’re gonna ignore. 80% of the inputs from the red team are gonna be ignored. And the reason is because you did already think of that, you had considered it and even though you didn’t lay that out in your plan, that was something you had thought about already, so you’re not gonna make any adjustment to your plan. That’s the whole reason we don’t debate ’cause there’s no point in us telling them, “Yes, we did consider that we’re going to ignore what you’re saying.” But the secret is yes when you go behind closed doors, you are gonna ignore about 80% of those comments.

JN: Now, about 5% of those comments are going to be what we call contingencies, and that means that’s something that could happen, but the likelihood is pretty low of that occurring, but the impact would be high, so, okay, let’s make a contingency in the next step to make sure that we’ve considered that. Somebody could say, “Have you considered that our executive vice president might quit next month?” And you think, “Well, yeah, I guess that could happen, and likelihood’s not very high, it seems like they’re really happy and they’re on board, but the impact would certainly be significant. Sure, we’ll build in a contingency plan based off of that comment.” 5% of the red team inputs will be thrown in the contingency bucket. And then the last 15%, on average, end up being comments that we actually change our plan for. These are the gems, this is why you have the red teaming conversation, in just 20 to 30 minutes, think about it, you’ve gotten comments from these teams, from the red team members, that are going to change the way you execute this eight to 10 week plan. This is extremely valuable, and you’ve done it in a none attributional way, where you’re able to get these inputs, they go back to their day.

The Value of a Red Team

JN: You don’t even owe them a conversation about what you kept in the plan and what you didn’t, that’s not the point, you’re just getting these inputs and making adjustments based on your own assessment of those inputs, but you’ve changed your plan. And you probably changed it in a critical way to make it better for execution. The red team saw something that for whatever reason, you weren’t able to see during the planning stage. And that’s the real value of having that red team. And I’ll tell you the last thing that it’s gonna do for you, it’s gonna start to change your culture. Everybody talks about being able to respond faster to the market environment, they talk about being agile, they talk about having a learning culture, being able to iterate quickly, and that’s all great, those are all great concepts, but we don’t often talk about the behaviors that lead to those concepts. This is one of the easiest ways to start building that learning organization, this is one of the easiest ways to start becoming more agile. And the reason we are not agile is because we end up an analysis paralysis, because we wanna sit around an talk about the problem for two months before we ever act.

JN: Because we never put it in front of a red team on day one, who could say, “Yeah, it’s ready for primetime, change this this and this.” And then you can go execute it. By day two, we’re executing our plan, we’re not waiting for perfection. Don’t let good be the enemy of good enough. We need to get this plan out there right now as soon as we get it to what we call the 80% level, I’m ready to execute. Why 80%? Why not a 100%? Because as soon as we begin execution, we know the environment’s gonna change. We know we’re gonna have to adapt and change the plan, to adjust for the inevitable pop-up thread that’s going to occur. I’m not gonna wait until a 100% plan gets built, I’m not gonna wait for a perfect plan, because by the time I build that perfect plan, the market’s changed and the plan’s obsolete, it’s useless to me. Get it to the 80% threshold and get it there quickly because you used a red team, to help you to build it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope that you use the red teaming concept with your teams. I hope you connect with us and tell us, how this red teaming concept is working and how the process is affecting your teams in your culture.