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  • Rob Houghton

The Red Challenge Flag


For those of us who watch college or professional football, you will notice the use of a red challenge flag. It actually looks more like a crumbled up red handkerchief and is used by the head coach to challenge a certain play that they feel was judged wrongly by one of the officials. Many times, it can be a pivotal (and dramatic) turn of events.


The concept is so popular now that many other professional sports organizations are adopting the challenge flag now including the world soccer federation.


Several years ago, while participating in a Concept of Mission Planning (CONOP) exercise with a U.S. Special Forces element, one of the Green Berets in attendance threw a small red hand towel to the front of the room to challenge part of the mission plan. It was brilliant. Everyone in the room knew immediately what that meant. The Red Flag.


He was challenging a part of the plan.


Red-teaming has always been part of any military CONOP, so throwing the towel really brought the point home that everything needed to be challenged.


So how can The Red Flag be applied in the civilian business world? In many ways. Here are five ways:

1. External Input: Diverse leadership has been proven to be dynamic. And I am not talking about “woke-leadership” …totally different. I am talking of REAL diversity such as: outlook, race, gender, age, educational background, and even politics. It’s proven that firms with diverse leadership are more apt to challenge the internal status quo and have more customers, are more profitable, achieve greater market share, and have happier workforces.


2. Accountability: This comes down to instilling a corporate culture of Extreme Ownership. I have talked and written about this many times in the past, but it is very true. We need objectivity to make good decisions. Surround yourself with others who have the courage to keep you accountable to do what you say you are going to do. My wife keeps me accountable! She throws the red flag at me all the time – and I love it. Develop metrics and benchmarks for yourself and your direct reports. Challenge it. Measure this on a consistent and regular basis. It works.


3. Put your Lawyer Hat on: My best friend and personal lawyer has this excellent technique when preparing for a case. I have witnessed this. He argues the other side of the case. It helps him appreciate the contrarian point of view. It helps him reflect on his own case. Businesses and executives can do this too. Before making a hurried decision, why not consider the other point of view first? Why not role-play your big idea with a colleague before presenting it to your leadership?


4. Enablement & Empowerment: This is where coaching skills come into play. And this is why Executive Coaching and Life Coaching are all the rage right now. Enabling and empowering your workforce is very powerful. Let them come up with their own solutions. Empower them to challenge you! Build yourself a bottoms-up organization vice the traditional top-down organization.


5. Red Teaming: A red team is designed and incented to challenge the status quo…the popular and prevailing opinion or thinking in a meeting. Performing this function well and having the right red team is enormously effective. It’s why it is a bedrock in the decision-making process in the US Special Operations community.


So the next time you see that red flag fly during a football game why not consider how this could apply to your own personal or professional life?


Rob Houghton



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