Red Team: How to Succeed by thinking like the enemy by Micah Zenko

When you have a political analyst and a research scholar write a book about issues that decide the course of both politics and decisions, you get a masterpiece.
One such book is Red Team: How to Succeed by thinking like the enemy, the one written by Micah Zenko, a Ph. D. in Political Science from Brandeis University.



Author : Micah Zenko
Originally Published : 2015
Publication : Basic Books
Pages :336
Genre(s) :-
Non-Fiction, Business, Strategy

He also writes extensively for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy and Business Insider. This young scholar knows the significance of alternate thoughts in decision making. This is a book about how to improve the performance of an institution by enabling it to see the world in a new and different way – military units, nations or businesses alike. 

Zenko highlights the importance of one not grading one’s own homework. Which means that leaders are many times systematically oblivious of the glaring shortcomings of their own organization and people. Not because they cannot see things obvious, but because of cognitive bias- Mirror imaging, anchoring and confirmation bias; and organizational biases – where employees adopt the personal preferences of leaders in daily work and life. That makes it all the more difficult and impossible in most cases, for dissent to flourish. Not because leaders disapprove, but because it doesn’t find its place in an organization. People rarely spot problems when everything’s going smoothly, rarely do they bring to the notice of the leader and still rare for this to happen without any consequence. 

What are Read Teams

Basically, these are safety valves deliberately put in place by organizations to bypass complacency and a shared voice and ideology of those working there. 

From Internal Dissidents to Tiger Teams that break into buildings and security or consultants who expose strategy, organizations want their vulnerabilities to be exposed. If it would happen in the natural course, it was better, but it doesn’t, hence this need. These teams bring in a third angle, a different perspective that would otherwise not be visible in the routine course. Red teams help institutions in competitive environments visualize themselves outside of daily routines, evaluate plans, identify institutional and strategic vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and potentially improve performance via three techniques: simulations, vulnerability probes, and alternative analyses. 

Do red teams work?

They do, only if the leaders identify their importance. 

When they do identify, these teams become priceless, If not, they’re just worthless. 

Red teams can only function best when they have access to information and are heard. Who would dare tell the emperor he’s wearing no clothes?

Three notions should guide the positioning and identity of a successful red team:

  1. The structure of the red team relative to the targeted institution (the where), 
  2. The scope of the activities that it pursues (the why), 
  3. and the sensitivity with which it operates and provides its findings and recommendations (the how). 

Getting these three factors correct is difficult yet critical. Moreover, the functioning of the Read Team should not put the usual employees at risk nor should it make them conscious of being observed and scrutinized. 

Essential traits of a red team

Like every other team, even a red team needs to have certain essential traits that define them. Below three are the most important ones: 

  1. The right combination of personality and character traits- strong attributes to be able to penetrate the current guard and speak up what’s ailing, in the face of leadership. If it is late, it is useless. 
  2. Experience – one must rightly know what it is to be done and how. 
  3. Tacit interpersonal communication skills – many times, hierarchy and groupthink come in the way of free flowing communication between people and levels. 

Without these three attributes, a red teamer would be considered a threat by the normal employees and would be useless at that. 

Note: The book is replete with anecdotes of the origins of the Red Teams and their utility, especially in the armed forces where complacency is akin to surrender and defeat. However, after a while, the overbearing voice of military examples and jargon may overwhelm a reader, especially those from outside the US. It is well after the first half that Zenko delves into the corporate red teaming. 

Three Types of Corporate Red Teaming

Now that you have a fair bit of understanding of what a Red Team is, natural question to ask next is how does this concept fit into the corporate world? Well, there are three ways that you could see this happen. 

  1. Business War Gaming by external consultants who simulate strategy or critical decision making
  2. Identifying cyber vulnerabilities by white hat hackers who show you your weak spots
  3. Physical penetration tests of supposedly high security facilities at factories or data warehouses. 

Each of these, and perhaps there are several other ways in which you could do this practically, has a significant impact on your operations when implemented effectively. 

Key takeaways

  1. You don’t learn anything from anyone who agrees with you on everything. 
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open, but also ask someone who sees you from afar about how they see what you may have missed. 
  3. Red Teams work brilliantly only if the leaders are willing to empower them and listen to their brutal questioning.
  4. Red teams do not achieve ‘Goals’, they only help you see from a diverse perspective than yours. 

Why I recommend this book

Read this book if you do not like to take constructive criticism and dread the appraisal meetings. 

Taking proactive measures to spot one’s own vulnerabilities keeps you stronger than competition and always alert. 

Put Red teams as an integral part of your business strategy so that you are aware of loopholes before someone else misuses them and cause much distress and loss.

This book shows with proof how keeping an alternate perspective helps you see clearly what you may have missed. It is a great eyeopener for those in business and public and social life. 

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