Red-Blue Team Intervention: Driving Constructive Conflict
This is our first article in a series on evidence-based change interventions informed by behavioral science. We open with a process intervention: the Red-Blue Team exercise. This is an effective technique for idea generation, decision-making, and creating a culture of constructive conflict. This article shows you how you can facilitate the Red-Blue Team intervention yourself as a manager or leader.
One of the most important ways in which behavioral scientists help empower organizations and their people is through interventions. This is a fancy word for a method for ethically and subtly changing behavior to get better results. To demystify what we’re talking about, this article focuses on one intervention we have helped many clients implement: The Red-Blue Team exercise.
The History of Red-Blue Team interventions
The Red-Blue Team exercise has its roots in military science where it was used to simulate how a strategy or set of tactics would play out. The blue team executes the strategy and the role of the red team is to ‘become the adversaries’ and identify any weaknesses or threats. This allows for optimization which prevents future exploits.
It is therefore no surprise that the Red-Blue Team intervention is at the core of the cybersecurity industry. There, the blue team works from within to safeguard the organization against cyberthreats whereas the red team works as an external ‘ethical hacker unit’ that aims to overcome cybersecurity controls. This dual approach has four main benefits:
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- The blue team provides long-term protection informed by actual results
- The red team identifies vulnerabilities which indicate where to improve
- There is continuous improvement by finding gaps and filling them
- This intervention lends itself perfectly for other business challenges as well
The Red-Blue Team exercise was also adapted as a facilitation technique in the world of organizations. Here it can be used to brainstorm ideas, as part of the decision-making process, or to encourage more constructive conflict in your team or department. This is the kind of Red-Blue Team intervention you will read about in this article.
The Red-Blue Team intervention explained
The Red-Blue Team intervention is an evidence-based intervention that helps leaders and managers in organizations make better decisions by harnessing the knowledge and experience of their team while driving a culture in which everyone speaks up.
It is a 30-60m exercise that helps explore all angles of a particularly important decision or topic before acting on it. In this example below we’ll focus on the lightning version (30m) but for tougher challenges you can double the time of each element.
Preparing the Red-Blue Team intervention
There is a facilitator who drives the conversation, ensures a safe environment in which people can express themselves, and gathers insights that might help with making the right decision or finding the right ideas. This is often the role of the leader or manager but could be anyone, although ideally someone with strong social skills.
Before the session, the facilitator (or group) comes up with a guiding statement which, when explored from all sides, will help in making the decision or generating good ideas. If you consider implementing a new tool called X, an example could be “Using X will help us achieve result Y”. If you want to stress-test your new strategy, it could simply be “Our new strategy is the best way forward”.
The blue team is in favor of the statement and will argue for why tool X will indeed lead to result Y or why the new strategy is indeed a wise decision. The red team takes the opposite stance, looking for good reasons why the statement is untrue. Each team takes a moment to separately think of arguments and discuss how to present them.
At this point, you might ask yourself: “Does it matter who is in which group? Should people who are actually in favor of the statement be in team blue?”. Great question, this depends on whether you want to optimize for the best end result (e.g. optimal decision, best ideas generated) or a culture of constructive conflict (e.g. having people speak up leads to better results in the long-term).
The goal of this exercise is not to win the debate or outwit your opponents with mind-bending arguments. The goal for both the red and blue team is the same: coming up with strong arguments and later on, finding an optimal solution together.
The Red-Blue Team intervention in action
Then comes the actual exercise. The blue team takes five minutes to make their case and explain their arguments. Then the red team has five minutes to do the same. The facilitator takes notes or writes the arguments on a whiteboard while ensuring everyone gets to share their viewpoint. This is crucial as a diversity of minds often leads to better results.
After both teams share their arguments, it is time for 15m of open dialogue. Both teams get the opportunity to counter or agree with the other teams’ arguments AND search for shared paths to a potentially better solution. The facilitator plays a key role here by ensuring everyone gets to share their thoughts and challenging both teams to find constructive solutions forward while collecting these ideas or insights.
Finally, the facilitator signals we’re nearing the end and both teams take off their red or blue hats. Now you’re all on the same side looking and collectively you take five minutes to integrate all insights and look for constructive ways forward.
If you can find a better solution directly, that’s great! If you cannot yet, do not worry. If you did this exercise well, you have explored more avenues than you would have done on your own and this will be a base for future solutions. Both teams also likely have more empathy for each others’ viewpoints now.
If everything went well, you end up with quite an exhaustive list of arguments in favor of and against the statement plus an overview of potential solutions that help satisfy multiple needs. It is important to think about the trade-offs and optimize for your goal without simply ending up somewhere in the middle just to satisfy both parties.
The Science behind this intervention
So why are behavioral scientists fond of this technique? This is where it is useful to have a basic understanding of some of the biases that affect our decision-making. We will discuss some biases that the Red-Blue Team intervention helps mitigate here but you can learn more about the mechanism by which our systematic thinking patterns emerge in our article on System 1 & 2 Thinking.
Cognitive biases are systematic patterns in which all humans tend to make irrational decisions. Loss aversion for example, our tendency to avoid losses, impacts our willingness to speak up, drive constructive conflicts, and explore options. Next to that, arguments coming from senior stakeholders carry disproportionate weight due to authority bias, and the bandwagon effect prompts stakeholders to join in on popular initiatives regardless of their effectiveness.
So how does science tell us to deal with these cognitive biases? It is extremely difficult to remove bias from people (apart from self-awareness) but it seems increasingly effective to shape the environment instead. Change the processes, not the people. The Red-Blue Team intervention is a good example of creating a safe environment to maximize divergence, dissent, and discourse.
We also recommend using red and blue hats, shirts, or armbands to help participants identify with their team. This leverages another bias, the in/out-group bias, and helps strengthen the quality of opposing viewpoints.
When to use a Red-Blue Team intervention?
Like all interventions, these are tools in your belt that you can summon whenever needed. So what are the circumstances under which the Red-Blue team intervention is recommended by behavioral science? We list a few examples below:
- Important yes/no decisions: Making ‘big bet decisions’ requires high confidence in your choice, which can make it worth the effort spent on this exercise. Venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz use this intervention to explore all avenues before committing to funding a startup or scale-up.
- Groupthink-sensitive settings: We’re hardwired to prioritize conformity over confrontation, especially in high risk decisions. You don’t want to be responsible for steering your team into a poor choice, but keeping quiet and going with the flow is almost always detrimental for decision outcomes.
- Hierarchical organizations: The more hierarchical an organizational culture is, the harder it generally is for people to disagree with higher-ups. This intervention helps (temporarily) bypass that norm. Managers could even appoint others as facilitators and join the red/blue team themselves.
- Conflict avoidance cultures: Cultures affect our willingness to say what is really on our mind. This could refer to the culture of your country, region, company, or even people. If you notice that people find it hard to disagree with others or speak up, this exercise is an effective way to create a safe environment.
The best thing about the Red-Blue team (as well as other behavioral interventions) is that you can customize and tailor it to your unique situation. If your company faces a huge decision, you can turn it into a full-day exercise. Alternatively, you can run a quick 30m Red-Blue team during a meeting when you notice a lack of divergence.
To read more articles about brain and behavior insights, check out the rest of our blog! And there is much more to discuss regarding the use of Red-Blue team interventions in organizations so feel free to reach out to us if we can help you in any way.
Muehlberghuber, M., Gürkaynak, F. K., Korak, T., Dunst, P., & Hutter, M. (2013, June). Red team vs. blue team hardware trojan analysis: detection of a hardware trojan on an actual ASIC. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Hardware and Architectural Support for Security and Privacy (pp. 1-8).
Diogenes, Y., & Ozkaya, E. (2018). Cybersecurity??? Attack and Defense Strategies: Infrastructure security with Red Team and Blue Team tactics. Packt Publishing Ltd.
Sibony, O. (2020). You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake!: How Biases Distort Decision-Making and What You Can Do to Fight Them. Swift Press.
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