What every organization can learn from the CIA’s Red Cell to avoid stagnation

red team how to succeed by thinking like the enemyHow can your organization avoid stagnation and future proof itself?

In his book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, Micah Zenko tells the story of the CIA’s Red Cell group, devoted to “alternative analysis,” which includes techniques like “what ifs,” Team A/Team B exercises, and premortem analysis, all of which are used to identify holes in a plan, model an adversary to understand their weaknesses, or consider all of the conceivable ways a plan can fail beforehand.

Basically, Red Cell is a group within the CIA who’s sole intent is to think outside the box and consider impossible scenarios that traditional analysts wouldn’t:

Tenet decided to form 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.”

Innovative organizations have their own version of a Red Cell group

Though the analogy is often used, business, of course, is not war. But, like war, business does operate in a constantly changing context where a business evaporates if it doesn’t innovate. That’s where a Red Cell type of capability has value.

Generally, large organizations are tied to old ideas and one dominant mental model. So, adopting the Red Cell idea is useful because some of their techniques are put to use by many innovative organizations, like Pixar, to keep themselves honest and sharp; to get themselves uncomfortable.

For example, planning and working backwards from that plan is smart thinking, considering how that plan might fail is brilliant thinking; that’s what Pixar does at the planning stages of all their films.

Premortem analysis is a common practice of mine too. Another technique I use is “what ifs”. For example, one solid question you can use to reset your perspective and poke holes in the status quo is, what if you could start anew, knowing what you know right now what would you do differently?

The point of these techniques is to question business as usual, shift your perspective, help you avoid obstacles, closed doors, and overall just prevent your business from stagnating; to future proof yourself.

Bottom line: Innovative organizations are comfortable being uncomfortable, it’s business as usual for them. They avoid stagnation by considering “what ifs” and all the conceivable ways a plan can fail beforehand.