Thursday, October 13, 2016

Red Teaming: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, Chapter 1 – Micah Zenko


Red teaming is an extremely delicate method of analysis which requires at the outset the adherence of six principles as researched by Micah Zenko in the first chapter of his book, “Red Teaming: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.” Micah Zenko is a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations who focuses most of his research on conflict prevention, US national security policy, military planning and operations, and nuclear weapons policy. He wrote this book to fulfill a lacunae of research in the pursuance of an authoritatively centralized body of research on red team analysis.

He finds after surveying industry practitioners, military leadership, intelligence community professionals, and a variety of other sources that for any red team to succeed, 1.) the boss must buy in. 2.) The team needs to be outside and objective, while inside and aware. 3.) The team requires fearless skeptics who utilize finesses. 4.) The analysts who fill the analytic positions of a red team need to have a “big bag of tricks.” 5.) The consumer of the red teamed analysis needs to be willing to hear bad news and act on it. 6.) Finally, the team just needs to red team enough, but no more.


Per each principle a brief description is necessary to understand the extent of the red team ability:

1.)  The Boss Must Buy In: In this phase for any red team to be successful the “boss” has to buy into what the analytic team is doing so that they have the “top cover” needed to remain effective. This goes insofar as to say that the boss needs to set up enabling conditions in the support of their employees to build contrarian and otherwise alternative forms of analysis.

2.)   Outside and Objective, While Inside and Aware: It is critical that a red cell understands the structure, scope, and sensitivity of the problem they are working and in addition, “must avoid becoming institutionally captured, while also making a sustained contribution to that institutions core mission.” This is to say a red team must synchronize within the institution that it services, but not bound to the same bureaucracy.  Further, this process if done right, “should not result in inadvertent disruption or damage,” but rather probe an analysis or system for errors. Although many times red team analysis cause disruption.

3.)    Fearless Skeptics with Finesse: Red teams need to consist of people that are capable enough to be versed as both “critical” and “divergent” thinkers. In many cases, red teamers also need to be able to slip past cognitive bias and view themselves in a light as free of bias as possible. Although still difficult as analysts collectively exhibit “existence bias” or the natural tendency to believe something is good or morally just because it exists. To be real about a situation, many red teamers have also experienced at some point in their career “systemic failures” which help them think up future failures.

4.)    Have a Big Bag of Tricks: The red team analyst is one who cannot become entrenched in routine and easily anticipated. Conversely, the analyst needs to be eclectic and broad-minded. Further, the analyst needs to possess flexibility and adaptability to apply to different situations to achieve traction and uniqueness. This is a constantly updating principle as analysts continue to assimilate technology into their ability assist in new analyses.

5.)    Be Willing to Hear Bad News and Act on It: The efforts of the red team should not be presented to a consumer and then sit on a shelf. If that is the case, nothing has been done to mitigate the findings of the red team and their analysis has not been taken seriously. This many times is not the fault of the red team; it is the institutions inability to accept the “potentially bad news” which could cost the organization some kind of material gains. Bottom line, the commissioning institution has to follow through with the information which is supplied in one fashion or another.

6.)    Red Team Just Enough, But No More: The use of red teaming capabilities needs to be calibrated to the needs of the organization. The red team analysts should not red team for the sake of “red teaming” rather, they should aim to resolve an initial problem that they were initial tasked with figuring out from its start to its conclusion. Additionally, “a red team can warn senior decision-makers about blind spots or unforeseen challenges that they need to focus on immediately.” Red teams also need to be cognizant of the overall ramifications of the fallout and calibration needed to accept the answers they provide to the organization.


Zenko presents effectively and clearly the overall prescriptions of how to use a red team appropriately. The book although highly authoritative is hard to just pick up and glean tactics and abilities from. Taking the book and condensing it into a concise user manual may provide decision makers and red teamers alike a framework to understand the partnership they are engaging in a bit more clearly. Overall, great source.



  1. Tom,
    Well done outlining this article into an easily comprehensible format. I am still a little unclear as to the last parameter about red teaming just enough but no more. Did the author go into detail explaining why organizations should utilize red team analysis only in certain circumstances? It seems to me if this is an effective method for producing nuanced analysis or at the very least alternative views of a problem, it should be utilized as often as possible. It just seems like the reason it isn't recommended for use all the time is because it can potentially hurt feelings or force DMs to act on potential problems. Neither of those are legitimate reasons to not conduct an analysis in my opinion.

  2. Eric, thank you for your comments!

    To answer your question about "Red Team Just Enough, No More," the author makes it clear that to keep the red teams' analysis current it has to be presented in a timely fashion. Organizations are dynamic and if the information/analysis does not make to them in time then all the red teaming in the world would have not made a difference.

    He also goes on to state that many tasks are started without an end date in sight. Therefore, without a timeline on the horizon the red team can become complacent and atrophy without the pressures of deadlines.

    In the end, the two most important aspects of red teaming is that its analysis provides DMs the information they need to make "concrete changes in the strategies, plans, or procedures," and second, letting know the red team know how they affected the organization so the proper prescriptives can be handled/modeled.

  3. Tom, I like how Zenko presents criteria for successful red teaming that can be used in any situation. It seems like a lot of the literature focuses on specific circumstances for red-teaming, such as for military operations. Did Zenko reveal any real-life examples of successful red-teaming?

  4. I came across this guy in several articles and videos and it appears he knows what he is on about. He has a lot of research on Red Teaming under is belt and it has all been well received. Not sure how he is for readability, but the best are sometimes a little tough to get through. Good choice here, Tom.