Is it time to do a red-blue exercise?

Have you ever been part of a red-blue exercise? The red-blue model is often used in development of military strategies, sports team play books, security exercises and the crafting of anti-spy ware software. To conduct a red-blue exercise, an organization is divided into two groups: one team defends and the other attacks. In the end, the position of the organization is stronger in that it has a better understanding of both sides of a problem.

I had a boss who liked to “red-blue” issues. He would assign two teams two positions: prove a concept and disprove a concept. Sometimes, his purpose was to strengthen his argument and other times he really wanted to see the merit of each side before he made a decision on which path he would take.

My friends in high school debate class spent many hours developing both sides of an argument. In a debate, their position, whether for or against a proposal, was made just before the debate. They had to be ready to defend either side of the issue.

Lawyers are experts at red-blue scenarios. If you have ever worked with a legal team, it can be frustrating as you listen to them seem to encourage one position and then to reverse themselves and explore the merits of the other side of the argument. Unfortunately, too often we (I!) interpret a 360⁰ discussion (or, looking at all sides) of an issue as being wishy-washy rather than for what it is, a complete assessment – an opportunity to examine everything about an idea, good and bad.

But, as a leader, seeing all sides of an issue can be threatening, especially to our “pet projects.”

It’s important to understand that how we approach an issue is just as important as the expert advice that we receive. For instance, does a red-blue approach to an issue make us uncomfortable? Don’t answer “no” too quickly. I can say that I am very comfortable at looking at all sides of an issue when I have no personal investment in the outcome.

But, when I see that the path I have already outlined may not be perfect, I am much less interested in conducting a 360⁰ assessment. And, if I, the leader, am hesitant about looking at all sides of an issue, then the people around me will be less willing to speak up and to raise ideas or concerns that they have. Just like the story of the emperor’s new clothes (or lack thereof), people can perceive our bias and will be careful to not cross us.

Mature leaders understand that they, by themselves, rarely come up with the best answer. Instead, a wise leader presents an issue to the team, encourages input and discussion, listens and waits. The solution developed by a group has two attributes that a single-person solution will never have:

  • First, it has the collective knowledge, experience and wisdom of the group. The old adage is true – two heads are better than one.
  • And, a group solution has the buy-in of the participants. Having a problem getting your team onboard with a project? Consider how the plans were developed – did you draft them alone and present the plan to the team? Or, was the team involved in creating and refining the project? When people are part of creating a solution, they are more enthusiastic and committed to implementing the plan.

Just remember that doing a red-blue exercise, assessing the pros and cons, or implementing a team-developed plan all help to achieve the mission. After selecting the best solution, fully aware of the problems that may hinder us, aided by the best information and advice, and accompanied by committed team members, we are able to move forward with assurance that we are on the right path.

Want to read a great Biblical story on this topic? Consider the decision making process used by King Rehoboam in I Kings 12. (

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