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Three situations that call for a red team

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Lisa Earle McLeod

What if you had a team of people whose sole job was to find fault with your thinking?

It’s called a red team. Used by the CIA, IBM, the Army, news organizations and other businesses, a red team is a group designed to penetrate your defenses.

In a recent episode of the HBO show “The Newsroom,” the news team was working on a big, high stakes story. Some members of the news team were intentionally kept in the dark about a big scoop. When the team producing the story was ready to go live, they assembled the people who had been intentionally left out to form the red team. The red team’s job is to poke holes in the story.

By keeping people in the dark, they’re not invested in the story, so they can be more objective.

In the military the red team tries to penetrate your defensives. In the high tech world the red team tries to hack into your system.

The red team finds the problems, risks and bugs that the insiders miss. In high stakes situations, a red team can save you from making a terrible mistake.

For example, several years ago my husband and I bought a business. During the decision-making process, we enthusiastically discussed it with family and friends.

But we neglected to appoint a red team. We never said, “Poke holes in this. Help us see the downside.” Instead, our friends and family were swept into our enthusiasm. If they had doubts they didn’t voice them because they didn’t want to rain on our parade.

We asked our financial advisor, “Can you help us figure out how to make it work?”

A better question would have been, “Can you help us figure out all the reasons why this might go wrong?”

We bought the business. It was a disaster. It might have been prevented if we’d had a red team.

You don’t have to be the CIA or IBM to create a red team. Two or three trusted (and competent) colleagues or friends will suffice.

Here are three high stakes situations that call for a red team:

There’s a lot of money at stake.

Enthusiasm helps you accelerate success, but it can ruin your decision-making. I’ve seen organizations and individuals make terrible decisions when enthusiasm prevails over hard numbers. If the check has a few zeros in it, you need a red team of cynical, nit-picky accountants. Ask them to strip away the emotion and just look at the facts.

The decision will be hard to undue.

Tattoos, first marriages, joining the Army, getting divorced, have lifelong consequences. It’s worth asking someone to play devil’s advocate. Before you cast off your spouse (or get her name carved into your forearm) ask an older, smarter, calmer person, “What potential negative consequences do you foresee?” Don’t argue with them, just listen carefully to the answer.

Someone is rushing you.

I’ve learned if someone is pushing for a fast decision, it’s often because there’s something they don’t want you to find out. Good leaders make crisp decisions, but they don’t make hasty decisions. If you feel uncomfortably pressured, take a day to check with your red team. Ask them where they see risks.

The right red team can help you avert disaster. But they’re only valuable if you listen to them.

‑ Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant and author of several books (www.LisaEarleMcLeod.com).

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