In 1932, rear-admiral Harry E. Yarnell ran a simulation. He demonstrated that he could destroy Pearl Harbor through almost exactly the same tactics as the Japanese would use nine years later. His recommendations were dismissed. No one was considered crazy enough to launch an attack with so much self-inflicted material damage and casualties.
Since then, and especially since 9/11, the American army and government agencies like the CIA have tried to avoid being blindsided by their own prejudice. They do this by deploying Red Teams. These teams of elite soldiers and analysts are tasked to challenge existing strategies or security protocols To explore alternative futures/avenues that are out of scope for regular strategy makers.
Through army contractors, the technique has also become commonplace in the software security business. White-hat hackers strengthen IT systems by trying to gain access to sensitive client data, email communication and a client's innermost secrets.
I think that Red Teams should also become a standard practice in the world of customer experience. For as long as I can remember, CX winners have been the ones that were willing to break the rules. Today, these companies are called Airbnb, Amazon, Tesla. Not so long ago they were named Ikea, Nespresso, or even further back Polaroid.
With all the technological, demographic and environmental changes ahead of us, every industry will have its Amazon moment. The number of disruptors will only increase. The angles taken will only get more creative. While it is impossible to predict the customer experiences of the future, we can safely say that theys will be nothing like the one we know today. Waiting to see what happens, is asking for disintermediation or even obsolescence. Companies need to proactively challenge their customer experience beliefs and make sure they disrupt themselves, before someone else does. In other words, they’ll need a Red Team to go beyond traditional innovation efforts and instead really shake things up.
If you haven’t got a Red Team in your business, here is how you could get started:
Build a team of super-smart mavericks.
Red teaming is not for the average employee. In their hearts, red-teamers love to mess with the system. They love to look at corporate policies, industry habits or technologies and find ways to hack them. So look across your organisation for the wild ones. The mavericks. The rule breakers. The people that regularly come with customer ideas that are too wild or too disruptive to execute, but somehow still sound cool. They can be young recruits, or veterans in your business. They can be internally recruited, or independently contracted. As long as they are fast thinkers, understand teamwork, have a healthy disregard for (corporate) correctness and a penchant for mischief, you’re on the right path.
Give them a bold mission and no rules.
Red Teams perform best if they get big goals. Think about what your Pearl Harbor would look like. Identify the segment, market or core profit driver that would really hurt if it disappeared. Then tell your red team to find a way to steal it from your business. Or even make your whole company obsolete. Their goal should be nothing less than the total annihilation of your business.
If they are the right type of people, they may be slightly daunted by this task. But they will also be unable to resist the challenge. Especially once they understand that they have your permission to disregard any corporate rule, legacy method or industry habit. As long as what they come up with is legal, it's on the table.
Get out of their way.
In an ideal world, you give your Red Team some operating budget and take its members out of the business for 3 to 6 months. While continuing to have full access to all the information and know-how in your business, they are shielded from any operational or even strategic tasks. This keeps their mind clear of bias, and hundred percent focused on their task. It also minimises leaks of their thinking into the mainstream organisation. This avoids the rest of your employees getting too nervous about any wild ideas that bounce around.
In case isolation isn’t practical, or you would like to have multiple Red Teams competing in an effort to wake up your business, it can also work on a part-time basis. As long as it is clear that the moment they put on their Red Team hats, they forget about the rules which they apply in their regular job.
Organise yourself to really listen.
When they are ready to present their case, your Red Team will be in a very different place than you are. They have been looking at the world through different glasses and will have developed a team narrative and logic which may have nothing to do with the way your business works today. Inversely, your employees (you?) will be looking at life as it is supposed to be.
This will cause communication problems. Your Red Team may fail to make itself properly understood. The rest of the business may reject their ideas. Just like the people evaluating Admiral Yarnell’s simulation, they may be inclined to come up with reasons why a certain scenario would never happen. Especially if that scenario might threaten their own existence, or that of their department/business line.
You can safeguard against both traps by pulling in people who are used to considering wild ideas. This can be friendly venture capitalists or serial entrepreneurs that have made a living from breaking the rules. Have your red team pitch their ideas to these external judges, and only let them return to you, once they have them convinced they found the right angle. This will allow them to sharpen the pitch, and prepare for any questions or challenges that may be thrown at them. When they present their case, the story will be sound. Also, having been validated by external experts, will make it harder to dismiss.
Make sure the red team always wins
Red teaming is not a casual game. Toying with the technique as just another simulation may hold risks for both the team members as well as your organisation.
If they fail in their mission, the members of the team risk disappointment, or even public embarrassment. After all they are not just asked to come up with another innovation, but to seek & destroy. Not achieving this goal should therefore not be seen as failure, but actually as proof that with the current business is still robust. This needs celebrating.
Inversely, if they are successful and do come with a way to upend your business, you have to do something with this information. Once humans have seen a better way of doing something, all other methods seem inadequate. This will be the case for your Red Team too. They will have seen the future, and have a clear picture of the vulnerabilities of your business. If they are as smart as they should be, they won’t want to remain on a potentially sinking ship.
To keep them as part of your organisation (which by this time is highly advisable) you need to give them the opportunity to either help transform your existing business into the direction they created, or give them the space to strike out on their own (as a new venture for your business). If you decide to take the latter route, the relationship they have been able to develop with the venture capitalist/serial entrepreneur, may be helpful.
This last bit is probably the most delicate part to manage. But if the Red Team really finds clear vulnerabilities in the customer experience you offer, and inversely provides your business with a next level of growth, it may be one of the smarter investments you make.
In the context of the Customer Council as well as some other work that I’m doing, I am currently working on a Red Team format which members could apply to their business. If you’re interested in piloting the approach in your business, let me know. I promise to give you a sweet deal ;-).
About this blog
Whenever inspiration strikes, I use this space to share my thoughts on customer experience management, storytelling or what ever else crosses my mind.