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Red-Teaming: A strategy against constantly evolving competition

David Sundahl, 1/10/2017

(This is a follow-up “Disruption in a New Age of Warfare.”)

In the past, US—and other countries—defense and intelligence agencies would set up small working groups tasked in designing countermeasures against innovations in our enemies’ ability to wage war. It was not particularly successful. However, there is hope. And it could provide a lesson for businesses. DARPA has created a section called “Improv,” responsible for figuring out how to stay ahead of—or at least up to date on—the capabilities of our enemies. The leader of Improv, John Main, could follow past practice and gather a handful smart engineers and tacticians to attempt to figure out how to overcome advances in enemy tech and war fighting. But Mr. Main is looking to change this.

The future of warfare is unlikely to be state-based—that is, we’ll be engaged less in conventional war against nation-states. Rather, we will be fighting revolutionaries and radicals, who are not in concentrated locations, but in loosely syndicated networks. We won’t be able to “soften” infrastructure targets with air strikes, followed by Marine Expeditionary Units and US Army Armor and Mechanized infantry, who take the area and drive enemy forces out, leading to a definitive surrender. In fact, this isn’t really a future problem. Last year, General Joseph L. Votel—then Commander of all US Special Operations Forces (SOF)—attempted to address how the military can cope with the breakneck OPTEMPO of SOF.[1] The reduced use of conventional forces with a radical increase in demand for and use of SOF, is an indication that the future is now.

To make matters worse, a radicalized enemy can take losses and more. For one thing, we can’t hit all the bad guys all at once, because they’re spread nearly all around the world. For another, groups of radicals dispersed around the world will be “moving up-market” in their tools and techniques of warfare.

As a result of the change in how war is waged and how this will spur innovation, Main is planning to create as he says, “very, very large ‘Red Team.’”[2] Red teaming is often standard practice among modern armies. When done right, a group of people—troops, intelligence personnel, etc.—learn everything about how and why the enemy fights, including the resource constraints and motivations for fighting both on an individual and aggregate level. A good Red-teaming exercise can lead to war gaming, where what was a thought experiment can be put into practice to increase learning.

In my view, Main’s approach is the only way to succeed in this fast, non-state state of affairs--using hundreds, maybe even thousands, of engineers, warfighters, biologists, and many others constituting our Red Team--thinking both about countermeasures, but also getting ahead of our enemies, by innovating at the low end.

The strategic thinking that arises from good Red-teaming, can be useful to businesses, as well. Most firms spend a great deal of time, effort, and money devising winning strategies for their products and services. Some companies even think about their competition. But when faced with the potential of disruption, I think Mr. Main at DARPA is onto something. I suggest that established firms engage in rigorous Red-teaming. In my experience, the more realistic and intensive the process is, the more likely a an organization is to find their way out of a bind and onto a new, winning trajectory. The leadership of an established firm can, when facing competition, create a temporary Red Team, composed of a vertical and horizontal cross-section of the firm that can spend a couple of weeks getting into the mindset of the competition, and then hatch a strategy designed specifically to disrupt their own organization. Of course, this means a substantial commitment from leadership to buffer the Red Team from the grind of daily meetings and tasks for that short period. But doing so should be worth it. Remember, disruptive innovation is principally a theory of competitive response. Consequently, an incumbent firm under threat that can gain a more complete picture of their situation, can mount a superior strategic response—and possibly innovate in ways that they would otherwise never have imagined.


[1] http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/05/19/socom-commander-says-op-tempo-stressing-special-operations.html

[2] http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21699098-makeshift-weapons-are-becoming-more-dangerous-highly-sophisticated?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/hell_s_kitchens