The Army Trains a Skeptics Corps to Battle Groupthink

One lesson from Iraq: More questioning may help avert mistakes.

Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland recalls his reception in Baghdad: ''Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?''

Lt. Col. Jeff Ragland recalls his reception in Baghdad: ''Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?''

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There is no doubt that the team is chartered to do something that the culture resists. While the military has a tradition of questioning the commander's concept of an operation—Napoleon would ask a corporal to challenge his war plans for understandability, for example—"what we don't have anywhere is the discrete capacity for looking at the plan from alternate points of view," says Fontenot.

Some of the trepidation that the military has about weaving such capabilities into the force involves basic human nature. "We've all been down the road where you're moving a million miles an hour planning something that is extremely complex, and you've got the good idea fairy saying, 'You know, have you thought about this?'" says Baumann. "You're not going to say, 'Huh, that's great. Let me start over.'"

A fair amount of the skepticism also clearly challenges military culture. "Once a leader is assigned to us, soldiers need to believe in them," says Ragland. "You can't have somebody questioning whether they should really attack that machine gun nest."

Even if the Red Teamers can overcome these obstacles, "that doesn't mean anyone's going to change their minds—that's why we teach negotiations, too," says Fontenot. Red Teamers take personality tests to gauge how they handle conflict and are frequently reminded of the utility of treading softly. "You don't have to play Stump the Chump and Red Team everything," says Baumann. They learn, too, that soldiers like positive reinforcement as much as anyone. "You can grab somebody aside and say, 'You know, that was really good. I was wondering about this,' " explains Baumann. "Or, 'I'm not trying to derail your plans, but have you thought about this?' If they say, 'Well, yes, I have,' then great."

Indeed, Red Teamers are generally taught to raise issues, then drop them. If they are too hard-charging in their role, says Fontenot, "a Red Team can also make it impossible for a decision to be made—the question is how do you accomplish the mission without bringing the organization to a halt." Their role raises a key question, says Fontenot: How can the program's graduates be team players but still maintain their objectivity? In essence, adds Baumann, "can you effectively Red Team for a long period of time in a given organization?"

The other big question is whether personnel will be available to keep staffing Red Teams when troops are at a premium. The goal, says Topping, is to get 400 soldiers a year coming through the program—then deployed to various brigades. As of mid-May, the program has had 144 graduates, with the Texas National Guard filling the bulk of the Red Team positions. This fact has generated some friction, too, says Topping. "One of the elephants in the room that we might not talk about much is the bias some people have against the Guard."

Ragland is a Texas national guardsman himself who used to own a computer consulting company in Houston. "If I were not in the Guard, I really think this might be a career-ending job," he says, adding, "I'm not sure the organization is fully ready yet to take on board everything we can provide."

The measure of Red Teamers' success, most estimate, is a decade ahead of them. "The outcome they're supposed to produce is a better decision, and that's an undetectable outcome," says Fontenot. Red Teamers know they are on the right track, he adds, "when they hear their own words parroted back to them as a reason why a plan's going to be changed."

Ragland agrees. "Maybe one day, someone will eventually say, 'Yeah, those knuckleheads did mention something about that.'" Fontenot, for his part, gives the program "a better than fifty-fifty chance" of survival. "I think it's got legs, but putting aside officers to do it" is tricky. And so, too, are the cultural obstacles. As Ragland says, alluding to the unconventional approach, "We're the guys playing Frisbee through the middle of the formation."

Yet given the magnitude of the task they set out to accomplish, Ragland and Baumann left Iraq feeling relatively optimistic, they say. "The idea didn't die with our team—I'm serious, that's been our biggest stride," says Ragland. "We challenged enough things that I think we proved our worth to headquarters. And we survived."