by James King
Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy - A Book Review
Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko
Published 2015 by Basic Books New York
Contrary to what the subtitle says you will not learn to “think like the enemy” by reading the book Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko. You will, however, come away with a comprehensive understanding of what a Red Team is and how best to use one. Red Teams are small groups of experts who are asked to look at a problem from a different perspective. These teams are either built from within an organization or brought in from the outside. A practice that Zenko explains dates back to medieval times when the Roman Catholic Church used people referred to as Devil’s Advocates to provide objections to the candidacy for a person’s sainthood. This practiced lasted several hundred years until Pope John Paul II eliminated the position allowing him to produce more beatifications and canonizations then the rest of the Pope’s combined.
The book is divided into six sections. Zenko bookends four chapters of case studies that are broken down by what type of organization was using them, with a chapter on best practices and a chapter on recommendations for the future. While entertaining, the case studies reinforce the discussions on how to create, run, and benefit from the use of a Red Team and the format allows the reader to easily skip to the instructional portions of the book.
The first chapter entitled “Best Practices in Red Teaming” begins like each subsequent chapter with a quote related to Red Teaming. In this case the quote tells you to run away when you hear the term best practices. Zenko goes on to explain that Red Team members cringe at the term “Best Practice” and there is no one way to conduct a Red Team. There are, however, six overarching principles that, when applied correctly, will make a Red Team more effective. These principles include:
- The Boss Must Buy In – This is probably the most important of the six principles. The leader of the organization being Red Teamed must support the efforts of the Red Team. Without the backing of the boss a Red Team is just spinning its wheels. The boss must also be willing to hear the criticisms of the Red Team and the Red Team must feel safe when making recommendations that may go against the boss’s policies.
- Outside and Objective, While Inside and Aware – Whether the Red Team is one comprised of people from inside the organization or brought in from somewhere else, members of the team must be able to walk the line between an outside observer and having the knowledge of an insider.
- Fearless Skeptics with Finesse – You must have the right personalities on your Red Team. They need to be free thinkers who are naturally skeptical.
- Have a Big Bag of Tricks – No two Red Team scenario is the same. Just as the quote at the beginning of the chapter implies there are no “best practices” that can be used in all situations. Red Team members need to be flexible and adapt their approach to the scenario and not the scenario to their approach.
- Be Willing to Hear Bad News and Act on It – If the recommendations of the Red Team are stuffed into a file somewhere why did you waste the time to have a Red Team in the first place.
- Red Team Just Enough, But No More – There is such a thing as using a Red Team too much. If done too much your organization will get nothing done.
The bulk of the book consists of cases studies in the use of Red Teams. Each chapter is broken down by type of professional organization. These studies are led off with a chapter on military Red Teaming - the profession that has spearheaded the modern usage of Red Teams. He continues with studies in the usage of Red Teams by the intelligence community, law enforcement, and the private sector.
The studies presented provide insights into both good and bad uses of Red Teams. Taken out of context some of these stories can be seen as an indictment against the organization for their lack incorporating the Red Team’s results. A story about a bad experience between an “effects cell” Red Team and GEN McChrystal in Afghanistan was used to prove a point, not that he should have turned the Red Team’s assessment into policy but as a cautionary tale regarding commander buy-in to the work of a Red Team.
Zenko raps up his book with some recommendations for the use of Red Teams in government including expanding Red Team education and the sharing of Red Team best practices across government agencies. He further stresses the need for governments to do Red Team exercises for the biggest decisions, postulating that had the US government conducted a Red Team exercise on the President’s strategy regarding ISIL in the summer of 2014 they could have provided the President with recommendations on creating a more effective strategy.
As Micah Zenko explains throughout the book Red Teams can be, if used properly, a highly effective tool for improving an organization’s planning process. Having an outside review of a strategy by people that are not tied to its success or failure can provide perspectives not thought of by the group, perspectives that can completely change the direction of the plan. For anyone interested in using a Red Team, developing one for their organization or have been tasked to participate on a Red Team this book is a must read.