Making Ourselves Uncomfortable: Red Team Methodology

Red team

A recent article by Micah Zenko in the latest issue of Foreign Policy looks at the experience of the CIA in challenging its own strategic predictions. According to Zenko, the “Red Cell” initiative began on September 12, 2001, when then–Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet formed a group of contrarian thinkers to challenge conventional wisdom in the intelligence community and mitigate the threat of additional surprises through “alternative analysis.” On that evening, his instructions were simple: “Tell me things others don’t, and make senior officials feel uncomfortable.”

National intelligence organizations throughout the world have long been struggling with the need to break their own analytic “glass ceiling” and to bring in new inputs that will help in creating better strategic analysis. Red teaming, alternative analysis and “playing devil’s advocate” are all synonyms for an analytical methodology aimed at sharpening intelligence thinking. Simply put, it is the practice of viewing a problem from the perspective of an adversary or competitor — including that of a competing thesis or analysis. The goal of most red teams is to enhance decision-making, either by specifying the adversary’s preferences and strategies or by simply acting as a devil’s advocate. The three main focus areas of red teaming are:

    1. Planning and Operations: Improve decision-making in planning and operations.
    2. Critical Review and Analysis: Improve decision-making and problem-solving.
    3. Intelligence: Improve understanding of enemies/rivals/competitors and develop better synchronization of intelligence and operations.

Based on my experience in conducting such exercises throughout the years, and especially at Wikistrat, I learned to appreciate the following methodologies, when running a red-team analysis:

    1. Discourse Analysis: A team analyzes written text (e.g., a five-year strategic plan) in order to address various characteristics (e.g., basic assumptions) of the paper, as well as text structure.
    2. Key Assumptions Checks: This ensures that an analytical judgment is not based on a flawed premise. This methodology allows a baseline of confidence to be established.
    3. Devil’s Advocacy: Given any argument, an opposing claim is made in order to test the quality of the original argument, identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original position.
    4. Team A/Team B: A competitive analysis exercise in which two (or more) teams compete to raise arguments and counter the claims of the other group (or a third party).
    5. Contingency “What-If” Analysis: This analysis employs various assumptions (associated with a probable event) to portray different.

I will conclude with a project Wikistrat led, and in which I was involved: In 2014, the Australian military published “The Future Land Warfare Report“, which outlines the major challenges facing Canberra’s military forces over the next two decades. The report’s second edition was produced through a collaborative red-team effort led by Wikistrat in 2013. The Army wished to recognize the contribution of the distributed decision-making and critiquing activity conducted by Wikistrat in late 2013, and the report was produced as a result.

About the author


Dr. Shay Hershkovitz
Wikistrat Chief Strategy Officer
Director of Analytic Community

This article was originally published on LinkedIn..

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