Neill Potts previously worked at Scottish Rugby, where he built and led a performance department that has played a major role in the nation’s return to international prominence in recent seasons. All in all, he led performance support in 120 Scotland senior men’s international fixtures, taking in nine Six Nations tournaments and appearances at the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups. In an exclusive feature for Performance, Potts reflects on his tenure and delves into Scottish Rugby’s use of red teaming – a common training practice in the military, intelligence, aviation and politics – to explain why it may prove a valuable tool for others in the world of elite sport.
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Archilochus, Greek poet 650 BC
Great plans do not guarantee success and optimism is their achilles heel. Whilst they help load the dice, focusing resource and talent toward strategic objectives, there is a tendency to fall in love with ideas and skip over the real challenges. Biases, mental shortcuts and presumptions create blind spots that, if exploited, can cause even the best plans to fail. This is a substantial challenge for elite sports organisations, characterised by cohesive groups with a strong culture where group think inevitably prevails over time. Red teaming provides a solution.
What is red teaming?
Playing devil’s advocate, a [usually independent] group deliberately challenges the assumptions upon which a plan is based; providing insight and lessons that make it more robust and expose overlooked opportunities. The concept dates to the 13th Century Vatican were the Advocatus Diaboli (‘devil’s advocate’) challenged the character of applicants for sainthood, searching for character flaws and holes in supporting evidence. In the early 1960s US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara began employing a devil’s advocate group to challenge department policy and plans. The practice continued throughout the cold war with designated groups of US officers applying Soviet concepts and technology in attempts to defeat American and NATO systems. This practice of pitting red (Soviet) against blue (US) gave rise to the ‘red team’ label. Today, red teaming is prevalent in military, intelligence, security, and politics as a means of testing systems and strategies.
Be your own worst enemy
While the principle of deliberate challenge is consistent within red teaming, there are a wide range of approaches in application. The toolkit employed depends on the problem and circumstance with red teams regularly operating within a domain likely to develop their own approach. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] used dedicated red teams to conduct undercover tests on airport security through simulated terrorist attacks. Technology giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook use ‘white hat’ hackers to run penetration tests on their systems. The CIA used a red team to challenge the intelligence and plan to capture Osama bin Laden. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] used red versus blue team debates to challenge climate science. Even the UK’s Department of Works and Pensions uses red teaming to monitor welfare reform.
The American military are red team MVPs. Officers are trained through specialist red teaming schools on courses that last up to 18 weeks. The National Training Center in California houses a dedicated red team brigade (OPFOR – opposing force) to train friendly forces (BLUFOR) by stress testing their battle tactics. Despite being numerically inferior OPFOR, like most red teams, tends to win. From the process, leaders identify the major lessons, relating them to those validated in previous actions. They identify those that are most pertinent to the next battle or action; never considering a lesson learnt until its members have changed their behaviour in response.
It often takes a crisis for red teaming to be considered and building an ark when it has been raining for 39 days won’t protect you against the flood. For example, the FAA created their red team in response to the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. For the next 10 years, this group conducted undercover simulated threats to enhance aviation security systems. Then complacency crept in. Red team warnings were ignored in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and were ultimately considered a contributing factor to 9/11. This in turn gave rise to red teaming programmes, including the CIA and NYPD, in the fight against terrorism. Failure sparks change, and sport is no different.
“From the process, leaders identify the major lessons, relating them to those validated in previous actions. They identify those that are most pertinent to the next battle or action; never considering a lesson learnt until its members have changed their behaviour in response.”
At the 2015 Rugby World Cup Scotland suffered a narrow quarter-final loss to Australia. We knew we had to improve decision-making and execution under pressure. Selecting the team early in the week provided an opportunity; inspired by OPFOR, we created windows to red team tactics. Briefed on the plan and encouraged to disrupt it, non-starting players acted as live opposition actively targeting weak points, revealing tactical blind spots. Exposed, the team was forced to problem solve and adapt. Consistent with many effective learning strategies, practices were error strewn as players were stretched. Unable to step in and fix the problems during red teaming sections, coaches found it difficult but hung tough. Debriefings transformed into collaborative problem-solving sessions; coaches and players riffing off one another as lessons were uncovered and opportunities for improvement explored. Leaders reiterated key points with peers, repeatedly revisiting potential solutions until they could be executed with clarity. Coaches targeted pain points in adapted training plans, re-testing tactics later in the week. Proven adjustments were acknowledged and incorporated into gameplans. Repeated doses of medicine provided a cure: training failures sparked improved competitive performance.
With limited resource compared to competitors, Scotland steadily improved from their red teaming efforts. Consistently challenging and defeating the sport’s greater resourced teams, they no longer clung to a top 10 spot. For the first time Scotland achieved and sustained a world number five ranking.
Grading your homework is hard to do
Elite sport is typically progressive and challenging by nature, with proponents ruthlessly hunting sources of improvement. It’s common to analyse opponents for chinks in their armour, rehearsing and refining tactics to exploit perceived opportunities. Actively assaulting your own plan adds a whole new dimension. But executing this successfully is not without challenges.
To be effective, red teams must provide a realistic test based on an opponent’s resource and ability. It takes creativity, real world experience, and integrity to pose a legitimate threat from an alternative perspective to enhance a plan. Recruiting such people, particularly if resource is limited, is difficult. Internally, these individuals are often involved in the planning process to begin with. Red teamers must remain indifferent. A red team discovering best practice will add value; but one developing the plan becomes compromised as they integrate to the group and fall prey to the very shortcomings they’re employed to overcome.
It is not always practical to employ an external red teaming group. Carefully positioned, second string players combined with a suitable coaching group can provide the necessary resource to develop your blue team. However, they must be more than staged antagonists wearing opposition colours to pose a legitimate threat and uncover fracture points. In sport, the best players make the team and consequently play blue. Where there is serious competition for places, second string players can provide the required challenge, but for most this is a luxury.
“Debriefings transformed into collaborative problem-solving sessions; coaches and players riffing off one another as lessons were uncovered and opportunities for improvement explored.”
There are solutions. To provide officers with life-saving combat experience in a safe training environment the United States Air Force flip the problem; recruiting the best pilots from the service as opposition and train them to fly according to the tactical doctrines of enemies. The English rugby team recently invited international opposition packs from Wales and Georgia to hone their set piece. At Scotland, we stacked the deck in favour of non-starting players with knowledge of blue team tactics and the tools to breach the plan. It takes a confident decision maker to red team effectively; frailties will be exposed, and results need to be acted upon.
Red teaming is not a silver bullet. The outcome is not pre-ordained, nor are all the limitations likely to be uncovered. Whether exposing plans to honest critique or disrupting tactics on the training field, judicious red teaming has proven to be an effective tool across industry to avoid catastrophe and expose opportunity. All great plans have blind spots. Red team yours to transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones.