Higher Ed and the 6 Best Practices for Red Teams

How might reading and discussing Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy be useful for your school?

March 8, 2016

Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko

Published in November of 2015

How should higher ed approach the concept of Red Teams?

None of the examples that Micah Zenko draws on in this excellent book Red Team come from academia. Yet, while reading Red Team, I kept thinking of ways that the methodology could be applicable to our work in higher education.

The concept of Red Teaming emerged from the military and intelligence communities, and has spread throughout the corporate world.  Red Teaming is the practice of an internal team explicitly challenging an organizations culture, procedures, practices, operations, and assumptions.  The goal of a Red Team is to improve the resiliency, viability, and success of the target institution through the promotion of divergent thinking and unconventional analysis.

My guess is that Zenko’s book will be widely read in corporate, security, law enforcement, intelligence, technology and military circles - but not in higher ed.  This is a shame, as those of us in higher ed would be wise to look outside our own industries for new ideas and practices.

Zenko provides a thorough list of best practices for any organization looking to stand up a Red Team.  (Zenko also notes that Red Teamer's hate the term ‘best practices’, as the Titanic was built to the ‘best practices’ of its day).

How do these best practices for Red Team apply to higher ed?

1 - The Boss Must Buy In:  As in the corporate and military worlds, the work of the Red Team will be useless unless the methodology (and the analysis) is publicly championed by campus leadership.  What is key in higher ed is the ability to carefully define the problem, challenge, or policy that is amenable to Red Teaming.  Some of the work that goes on in higher ed is an obvious fit to Red Team practices - such as network and campus security.  It is less clear if Red Teaming could work for more strategic investments.  Questions such as if a school should develop new online / low-residency programs, build a new campus, or create a new specialized center could be amenable to Red Teaming.  

2 - Outside and Objective, While Inside and Aware:    Red Teams must be immersed enough in the details of the operations that they are analyzing, but separate enough that they can provide objective analysis.  They must have a stake in the success of institution.  The best higher ed Red Teamer's will be those who are most publicly supportive of the school.  They must be external champions of the particular school that they work, while internally they must find ways to advocate for change.  Any college or university that wishes to use the Red Team methodology should populate the team with members who have strong networks at the institution, and who are recognized for both their expertise and their loyalty to the institution.  The alternative analysis of Red Teams - analysis that is designed to provide views that explicitly challenge current policies and the prevailing wisdom - will only be incorporated into decision making if the team members enjoy good reputations amongst the campus community.

3 - Fearless Skeptics with Finesse:  Higher ed does not suffer a shortage of critics.  What makes Red Teams different is that they provide an alternative analysis of existing practices in a way that can be heard by institutional decision makers.  The ability to offer strong critiques that are seen as helpful rather than distracting rests on the extent that the Red Team members are seen as being knowledgeable and sympathetic to the mission, people, and goals of the institution.  High levels of social intelligence are as important as critical thinking skills.

4 - Have a Big Bag of Tricks:  The best university Red Teams will consist of people who know a great deal about the higher ed industry, but who are also able to apply that knowledge to the local challenges and problems of the campus that they work.  Having a ‘big bag of tricks’ in the context of academia means having a generalists understanding of the various priorities and operations of the university.  Team members should have a wide set of analysis and communication skills, as limiting the methods that problems are analyzed or alternative ideas are communicated will constrain the quality and effectiveness of the Red Team’s work.

5 - Be Willing to Hear Bad News and Act on It:  An under-appreciated feature of traditional colleges and universities is their ability to resist popular ideas.  The fact that our schools are slow to change also means that we are good at sticking to our core values and most cherished practices.  The trick for today’s colleges and universities is know what parts of our institutions to evolve, and which parts should be defended.  How do we maintain our core practices while evolving (some) of our methods?  Red teams may help us identify which practices that we can change so that our values and culture is better reflected in our operations.  We should be willing to change what we do but not who we are.  This requires the confidence to do things differently.

6 - Red Team Just Enough, But No More:  Zenko stresses the point that Red Teams should never set policy.  Their objective is to inform policy by challenging current practices.  Colleges and universities should experiment with Red Teams to carve out a space for divergent thinking and non-conventional voices.  At the same time, it is important to recognize that the majority of the time, energy, and resources needs to be directed to implementation and continuous improvement.  Red Teaming is a tool - but it should not be confused with the real work of the institution.

How could you see applying Zenko’s 6 best Red Team practices to higher ed?

Is Red Team a book that you could see being read and discussed by your campus leadership?

Have you witnessed Red Teams being formed at your institution?  How effective was the practice?

What challenges, operations, policies, and assumptions do you think may be amenable to the Red Team methodology at your school?

What are you reading?



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