Red team chess

I wrote a while back about getting out of the ‘education echo chamber’ and challenging ourselves with people who may think differently or come from a different perspective than us. One of the links in this post was to, who are counter-insurgency and security specialists. I find the whole concept of ‘red teaming’ fascinating, and those I work with will often hear me talk about trying to ‘break ideas’ and thrash plans around while they are still in their formative or concept stage. Red teaming has evolved from the historical Vatican concept of the so-called  devil’s advocate – someone whose job it was to try and break ideas or plans, or to argue from the opposite perspective to the status-quo or accepted doctrine. The counter perspective was seen as essential to coming to good decisions and decision-making, just as actively seeking multiple perspectives is central to effective change in education contexts today.

One of my current favourite reads is Micah Zenko’s ‘Red Team — how to succeed by thinking like the enemy’. It outlines the whole concept of Red Teaming, and gives examples from a number of different fields across military and business arenas. He begins by observing:

Institutions — whether they are military units, government agencies , or small businesses — operate according to some combination of long-range strategies, near-term plans, day-to-day operations and to-do lists. Decision-makers and other employees do not simply show up to their jobs each morning anew and then decide then and there how to work, and what to work on. The existing guidance, practices, and culture of an institution are essential to it’s functioning effectively. Yet, the dilemma for any institution operating in a competitive environment characterized by incomplete information and rapid change is how to determine when it’s standard processes and strategies are resulting in a suboptimal outcome, or, more seriously, leading to a potential catastrophe. Even worse, if the methods an institution uses to process corrective information are themselves flawed they can become the ultimate cause of failure. (pg: xvi)

To me, that sounds very much like the dilemma schools and centres face each and every day, particularly at this time of the year as they are refining and confirming their strategic planning and day-to-day ways of working for the new year. It also reflects closely the understandings we have about the work we do in Learning with Digital Technologies to support schools and clusters to implement their plans and goals, but with a specific e-learning lens. Planning, making strategic choices, change management and ensuring the smooth implementation of actions promoting change towards agreed outcomes are all crucial elements of what we support schools and clusters to do.

Zenco (in Chapter 1) also describes six critical factors to the effectiveness of any Red Team programme. Once again these things will sound very familiar to anybody who is involved in school leadership or change management. With a specific school or centre context, these factors could look like:

  1. The boss must buy in: The support and engagement of the leadership in the entire programme and its outcomes is the most critical single factor in schools, centres and for Red Teaming.
  2. Outside and objective, while inside and aware: Those leading or supporting any programs or changes must be aware of the culture of the organisation and effective ways of engendering change within it. They must also understand who the official and unofficial leaders are and who it is most effective to work with and through to get the desired outcomes.
  3. Fearless sceptics with finesse: Don’t make assumptions — check them, break them, challenge them, and change them. Dance carefully around and between the things and people that may be blockers or impediments to change. Work carefully and skillfully with those people who may not be as on-board as others.
  4. Have a big bag of tricks: If one strategy doesn’t work effectively, good change leaders always have other ways of getting things to happen. They will know who the effective people are to collaborate with, and what strategies are most useful to work with them to get the change they desire.
  5. Be willing to hear bad news and act on it: Once again, effective leaders will be constantly reviewing and checking that they are on track for the outcomes they are seeking. They will be prepared to make changes along the way, and, if necessary, refocus their efforts in ways that will promote the long-term outcomes and gains they are seeking.
  6. Red team just enough but no more: You can over plan! At some point you need to get on with it and implement change, not just plan it and think about it. Fullan often quotes an inverse relationship between the overt ‘quality’ of strategic planning and the ‘quality of the outcomes’. has a moto of “Plan, execute, vanish”. Again this has a strong education parallel:

  • Plan well and for all contingencies.
  • Do what you planned, and said you were going to do.
  • Re-focus your change management attention and get on with the next thing when you have achieved your goal/s.

So, as you reflect on 2015, and really begin to ramp-up your school or centre development in 2016, what elements of Red Teaming can you include?

  • Do you actively try to break goals and plans while they are at the formative and intellectual stage so you are less likely to be surprised by something you never thought of?
  • Do you actively seek out the wacky and weird ways things that may go wrong – because they often do?
  • Do you seek the perspectives of those you disagree with or ask the dissenters for their ideas?
  • Do you over or under plan?
  • Are you even planning and actioning the right things, the ones that will have the greatest impact?
  • Do you over-labour things and not move on to the next thing you need to do?
  • What will you do if your plan does begin to falter?  Can you bring it back on track because the challenge you are facing is something you have already considered?

What other questions do you need to ask yourself to ensure that you achieve the things you aspire to for yourself, you students and your school/centre this year?


** cross-posted from

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