MoD updates guidance on ‘red teaming’ for problem-solvers

Handbook targets civilian staff across all departments as well as military leaders, authors say
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By Jim Dunton

01 Jul 2021

The Ministry of Defence’s independent think tank has updated its handbook on red-teaming techniques designed to aid problem-solving in a range of situations and which civil servants as well as military leaders can use.

The ministry’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre said the latest handbook was more focused on techniques that individuals could employ to deal with challenges they faced, in comparison with earlier versions that placed greater emphasis on the formal establishment of teams.

Red teams are created to subject an organisation’s plans, programmes, ideas and assumptions to rigorous analysis and challenge. Long a feature in the corporate world and in the US defence and intelligence services, their use has expanded in the UK in recent years.

The use of red teams has been highlighted by Dominic Cummings, the former top adviser to the prime minister, as something that should be used more widely in Whitehall. Last year cabinet secretary Simon Case told CSW that red teams had been used to provide “extra challenge” to policy choices in response to the coronavirus pandemic

The DCDC said its new handbook – the third incarnation of the guidance since 2010 –  was “equally applicable” to both civilian and military audiences and would be of interest to all government departments.

“The handbook differs significantly from previous editions in that it focuses on the red team mindset – using red teaming techniques that can be applied by individuals or teams to the problems they face, rather than focusing on establishing formal red teams,” it said.

“Approaches to formal red teams are discussed, but this is not the central theme of the new edition.”

The think tank added that the first part of the handbook was aimed at anyone faced with solving problems and making decisions across all levels of an organisation, while the second part was aimed at organisations considering creating a formal red-team capability – either permanent or temporary.

The handbook explores recognised behaviours that red-team techniques are designed to challenge and provides real-world examples of defence, intelligence and civilian failings that have arisen because of a lack of such approaches.

They include the US military’s failure to heed warnings of the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War; the failings that led to the post-launch explosion of US space shuttle Challenger in 1986; and the failure of some experts to view China’s lockdown response to the coronavirus pandemic as an appropriate reaction.

In addition to detailing common biases that underpinned those shortcomings, such as “confirmation bias”, the handbook advises on a range of approaches to combat flawed decision-making processes.

One example is the “everyone speaks once before someone speaks twice, seniors speak last” process, which is designed to prevent decision-makers from deferring to those with higher authority or a consensus view.

In his foreword to the guide DCDC director Darrell Amison said that defence and the wider government sector operated in an environment where the pace of change was increasingly rapid.

“The challenges we face can be acute, complex and dynamic,” he said. “Such complexity and uncertainty requires us to use effective critical thinking more than ever.”

He added that red teaming was a “practical response” to overcoming complex problems introduced to situations by human frailties, and allowed them to be recognised so that thinking and analysis could be corrected before “faulty judgements” were “cemented in the minds of key decision makers”.

The new Red Teaming Handbook can be read here.

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