Red Teams, White Forces and Black Swans

Presentation by DR SIMON EWING-JARVIE AND HON HEATHER ROY to 10th International Lessons Learned Conference, Queenstown, New Zealand.

 17 MAY 2017

 Many high performing companies have adapted the military techniques of red teaming and war gaming to improve critical thinking and address the frequently quoted dilemma of no plan surviving first contact with the opposition. However, the problems of homogeneity of thinking, group think and submission to the opinions of seniors still negatively affects outcomes. In order to deal with this, a ‘dual focus’ has been developed by the presenters. TorquePoint Ltd is Australasia’s only specialist designer of business war games and outcome simulations. Black Swans, its sister company, named after Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 seminal work, brings together a disparate group of individuals from students to C-suite execs and directors, who provide the market elements in a business war game. Loosely based on de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, the teams represent more than just the red team competitors and include government officials, consumers, advocates, media and more. They probe the blue team plan and, in doing so, introduce fresh perspectives in fact and in thinking. Blue team members are mixed among the other groups to enhance transfer. This presentation will consider the use of ‘White Force players’ i.e. people with little to no knowledge of Defence or inter-agency affairs, as participants in simulations and a permanent feature of the Total Defence Workforce.

[The video record of this presentation is available here: https://youtu.be/rcy2BnFmue0 and the video record of the panel Q and A is here: https://youtu.be/GvrmliAcvME ]

Thank you for the introduction and good morning. I’ll begin by pointing out that there is no housing shortage in New Zealand today. Despite years of political grandstanding, media commentary and sad photos of families living in cars and garages, the fact is that it is simply not true. There are plenty of houses for people to live in. How many agree with me? How many don’t agree? Who isn’t sure? Who here is an expert in human geography and the specifics of the NZ housing situation? Not many – and yet most have an opinion based presumably on some facts and critical thinking. In fact, I am 100% right. The problem of a housing shortage doesn’t exist in NZ – the only problem is that the houses and people are not available in the same place. The key to effective critical thinking for leaders is first identifying what the real problem is.

Throughout this presentation, we are going to make some statements, like the preceding one about housing, which will aggravate some of you. When that happens, instead of pretending that you have an urgent need to be elsewhere, write it down and also what bothered you about it. In question time, let’s apply some critical thinking to why these claims troubled you.

We have been designing and running corporate simulations using military techniques for four years. We were also involved with the establishment and operation of civilian “White Force” players in Exercise Southern Katipo in 2015. As a result, we had already started formulating our thoughts on greater use of civilians in military learning activities and that’s why this conference appealed to us.

One of the themes for this conference is red teaming as a means of enhancing our critical thinkers.  Red teaming, of course, is a western term drawn from the colour used to denote opposing forces on maps. However, regardless of the colour of ink you use, we all have in common some means of probing and testing in order to improve the performance of a plan. It encompasses action / reaction simulations such as war gaming, physical and digital probing of assets, alternative futures and unconventional analysis.

For decades, leadership and management techniques have migrated between the military and civilian world. Business war gaming is an example of this and the area in which we consult around the world. Field Marshal von Moltke (the elder) is known for writing that “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (better known as “no plan survives contact with the enemy”). Just as von Moltke observed, no organisational plan survives first contact with the marketplace.

While it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, it is possible to deduce the most likely and most dangerous courses of action (in terms of plan fulfilment) that competitors, customers, government regulators, me­dia and a myriad of other elements might employ in response to you and to factor that into your own plan for resilience. This is true for organisations of all sizes and in every sector. It is as applicable at the strategic level as it is for a project plan or preparation for a negotiation or legal hearing. Surprisingly, most organisa­tions do not test their plans with any rigour prior to implementation. Unsurprisingly, most leaders are frustrated in their ability to successfully implement their plans.

At the heart of a successful simulation is critical thinking. What does that actually mean? In the first instance, most researchers agree that critical thinking is based on the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment. There are many variations on how a person should go about learning to be a critical thinker. Some believe it can’t actually be taught. What we know is that there is no one right way. For every individual, there is a unique set of lifelong experiences combined with genetics and raw intelligence that define the way they view the world and therefore what they believe to be a fact.

Let’s consider an example. Who has read the book ‘Harsh Lessons – Iraq, Afghanistan and the Changing Character of War?’ It’s written by former British Army officer Ben Barry and published by IISS. How credible is it as a source? What about the book by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson called ‘Hit and Run?’ Who has read that? How credible is its content? Which book is linked to a lessons-learned report that the military commanders of the day declined to publish?

The answer is – both of them. Why would you not study in detail something that represented a clear asymmetric threat to your organisation?

This highlights the effect of organisational culture on thinking. To think differently to the way an organisation ‘does things’ creates cognitive dissonance. That causes discomfort for people. How is it that really bright people can act stupidly? How can people be very competent in one area and totally incompetent in another within their sphere of responsibility? How can a tactical commander develop a plan that requires logistics that are simply not available? Why don’t their subordinates point out the flaws in thinking? One reason is that the day to day effect of any organisational culture is so powerful as to completely overshadow any other thought or experience an individual has who wishes to remain a part of that group. Culture is like an invisible pacman that eats anything not like itself.

In a defence force or security agency, openly challenging analyses, conclusions or decisions is generally career-limiting. Difficult decisions, ones that an individual might not wish to make are easily taken when that individual is part of a group. You might be relieved to know that it isn’t much different in the civilian organisations we work with. The problems of homogeneity of thinking, group think and submission to the opinions of seniors still negatively affects outcomes.

In this context, is there any point in red-teaming a plan? In our view, an internal red team is, by default, ‘captured’ and no real use. Retired US Marine Lieutenant General Van Riper would probably agree. He was the red team commander for Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02); a major war game exercise conducted by the US Armed Forces. Adopting an asymmetric approach, he easily sank a whole carrier battle group in the simulation with an inferior red force in the first two days. After the simulation was restarted with different parameters, he claimed that the wargame had been fixed to falsely validate the current doctrine of the U.S. Navy and quit the role. Others have claimed that he went rogue on the original instructions. We will never know.

In most business war game examples worldwide (other than computer-generated simulations), the red teamers or ‘players’ representing the market elements are provided by other com­pany staff, professional service providers to the client such as public relations advisors, lawyers and ac­countants or in some cases, paid actors. This approach has two drawbacks. First, there is little potential for revealing fundamental flaws in a plan that everyone has a stake in. Organisations are notoriously lacking in objectivity when it comes to analysis of internal strengths and weaknesses and often unrealistic about external opportunities and threats. Second, this approach adds significant cost to the conduct of the busi­ness war game.

In order to offset these limitations, we have established a member-based organ­isation called the Black Swans (after Taleb’s 2007 book – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable). Our Black Swans provide the market elements in a business war game. They are selected and trained to explore and test plans. Can you think of someone in your organisa­tion that has done it all in terms of qualifications, courses and experience? Perhaps you’re that person? What do you do to develop them and where do self-employed specialists go to further their professional skills? Often, the answer is simply to spend the annual training budget on attending a conference.

Our Black Swans are the people I’ve just described. They range from retired or semi-retired directors and mid to senior executives through to self-employed experts in every imaginable field. They include a few ex-service personnel and some current reservists. All have a few things in common. They have vast general knowledge, they’re excellent critical thinkers and they’re great in simulated environments. They undergo a half-day induction programme, sign a confidentiality agreement and are then ready to partici­pate in a business war game. As far as we know, this organisation is unique in the world.

Loosely based on de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, the teams in a business war game represent more than just the red team competitors. They include government officials, consumers, advocates, media and more. Sometimes, we establish multiple blue teams with different briefs e.g. one team might have to operate within normal company protocols and another engage in a more disruptive approach. The teams of Black Swans probe the blue team plan and, in doing so, introduce fresh perspectives in fact and in thinking.

How useful is it to form a red team, as an example, for testing the plan to launch a new pharmaceutical product comprising public servants, army reservists, IT consultants and the like? The answer is that it works superbly. They are not bound by organisational culture and by virtue of not being specialists, tend to ask a lot of ‘apparently dumb’ questions which often get right to the heart of a problem. They have no investment in or emotional attachment to strategic decisions. They are quick learners who love researching a new industry and they bring new perspectives from other industries. They are a fresh set of eyes.

To further enhance the cross pollination of thinking, we move some of the client’s key people into other teams and vice versa with Black Swans. The General Manager of Strategy will defend their plan to the end if left in the client team. So, we move her to a competitor team where she is forced to attack her own thinking. Equally useful is involving some of the bright young staff who are seen as rising stars. You know, from your own experience, that if a junior officer were to tell their Commanding Officer that the plan had more holes in it than Kim Kardashian’s latest ballgown, they might be considered a bit mouthy – at best! It’s no different in the civilian world and so we make it OK for these people to learn and challenge by placing them in competitor, customer or regulator teams.

Can critical thinking be taught? Certainly, there are plenty of people making a living off providing courses on the topic. But let’s examine the components. Critical thinking requires both the mindset, opportunity and the application of techniques. The techniques can be taught but the mindset and opportunity are problematic. In effect, it is a life choice – a personal philosophy of dedication to lifelong learning and living in the world. It’s the constant pursuit of knowledge and, most importantly, having an open and honest conversation with yourself. Only by knowing yourself well can you make any use of knowing your opponent. I’m sure that Sun Tzu would have said it that way if we had the opportunity to discuss it first.

Using the basic building blocks of Hertzberg’s human performance formula, we have developed a model of what we believe are the components of effective critical thinking.

CTP = CTA x CTM x CTO x CTD

In this model, CT represents critical thinking. The overall performance of an individual (CTP) as a critical thinker is a function of ability, motivation, opportunity and direction. Ability as a critical thinker derives from both innate ability – intelligence in all its forms (IQ, EQ, AQ, CQ) and oral communication skills as well as learned ability in terms of background knowledge and specific tools relating to critical thinking such as argument analysis.

The motivation to think critically also splits in two – intrinsic or internal motivation and extrinsic motivation which derives from the environment and leadership. The opportunity to think critically describes the resources and a suitable environment – effectively a culture that enables and encourages the activity. Direction relates to guidance from leaders about overall intent and what the thinker’s roles in that might be. This is where we find a home for mission analysis.

I wish to point out that, above all the other military tools we use in the commercial sector, mission analysis is the most popular and useful. If I could only do one thing to bridge the language and understanding between government agencies, then I would teach them all how to do mission analysis.

Now let’s consider which elements are within the control of the individual and which are organisational imperatives. What is apparent is that the individual cannot achieve good performance alone any more than the organisation can demand that they think critically. It is a joint venture and if there is a failure, both parties have failed. Especially important in this model is the multiplication signs. We know what happens when you multiply something by zero. So, if any of the elements on the right-hand side of the equation is zero – then so too is critical thinking performance.

How do you teach critical thinking amongst leaders? We have found that adults learn this skill best by being able to spend time with proven performers. This gives rise to two needs, therefore – thinkers and mentors – fresh critical thinkers unconstrained by organisational culture to both engage in red team activities but also to act as mentors to young leaders. Where do you find these people? Certainly, there will be a few within your organisation but they will be largely viewed as anarchists and constrained by role. In the case of Defence Forces, you have many more in the Reserve Forces but they are still, often, constrained by the culture or quietly set aside as being some lesser mortal than their full-time equivalents.

Later this year, New Zealand will host Exercise Southern Katipo 17 (SK17), by NZ standards a relatively large-scale combined and joint Defence Force exercise involving many regional military forces and observers. Based on the premise of a troubled Pacific Island nation that had requested external military assistance, The SK exercises run every two years and span many communities across the upper and western provinces of the South Island of New Zealand.

During the previous exercise – SK15 – I was still serving as an Army Reserve Officer and was tasked with community liaison in a couple of regions as well as being an exercise controller.

Given that our business is based in Marlborough and half the company was in uniform, it was difficult to not be involved and I volunteered to be a civilian role player in the exercise.

Our observations, combined with earlier experiences with Defence, started us thinking about how to optimise the potential lessons learned from events such as the Southern Katipo exercises through the use of civilians as role players. The civilians who were involved in the exercise took up a number of roles.

For one part of the exercise I recruited 120 “tourists” comprising whole families, a scout group, school parties and other interested individuals who volunteered to camp overnight on a remote beach, as internally displaced persons, at a Red Cross processing centre. They were evacuated on to HMNZS Canterbury the next day. Others involved elsewhere mounted protests in the street. In one town, local shop owners ‘employed’ red force players as staff in the lead-up to and during the actual exercise – they were moles who had to be “discovered”. There were also named players in roles ranging from mayors to journalists, NGO workers and tribal elders who were identified personally in intelligence assessments and referred to as the ‘White Force’.

As part of these activities, a simulated smuggling operation was running guns, explosives and drugs between the harbour and a red force camp in the Marlborough Sounds. The courier vessels were all privately owned and the smugglers ranged in age from mid 50s to late 60s. The smuggling operations went largely undetected by the blue force. At the debrief, the blue force commander looked surprised to discover the extent of the operation. His comment was that “they were told to look for males of fighting age.” The CIMIC cell intelligence was good but it never found its way into the F echelon intelligence network.

A vast amount of skill, knowledge, experience and goodwill was assembled at no cost. The willingness of people who participated in SK15 to re-engage this year is obvious. Why not engage them in the intervening period instead of a few weeks every two years? We believe that our Black Swans organisational model could easily be replicated for Defence and security agencies through the creation of a standing White Force. A small amount of introductory briefing is all that’s required. They don’t require uniforms, barracks or pay. They could easily be engaged via existing Reserve Force structures without all the trade training. Through having a service number, they could then be moved on service transport, accommodated and catered on bases during activities. It would undoubtedly strengthen links between agencies and the community. Some of these people would make excellent red teamers and offer professional development opportunities for young leaders. Others might choose to simply keep being civilian role players. Either way, the potential benefits to your organisational learning are huge and the risks minimal.

In summary, we believe that the total defence workforce model, and that of other agencies, could easily be changed to include a standing volunteer white force of civilians.

This would provide the diversity of thought, mentoring and consideration of alternate approaches that will lead to better critical thought, planning and outcomes. Imagine the benefits of having a pool of people to call on when you need them (right people, right time) – either for exercises or in real time. But in order to gain best utility from this group they need to be well informed and educated between events.

This group, or course, would be a national asset and available to any arm of Government to provide red teaming, role players or anything in between. They are the best short-term hope for bridging the silos of national security without significant cost or risk.

Finally, no conference of this sort would be complete without a cool German word to take away and use. So here it is: Kriegsspiel – war game. We look forward to kriegsspiel with you soon.