Red Team: involve, don’t announce

Every September, headteachers around the world announce their annual improvement plans to staff. Most are pronounced. Few are involved. 

How can we as school leaders help all staff feel involved in their school, and involve staff in strategic planning, without overloading them or ourselves?

How do we know we have the right priorities, the best priorities, and haven’t fallen into unruffled, comforting groupthink and cosy consensus? 

How can we work out if we have chosen the right goal and the right plan?

How do we know if there are better options we’re missing out on?

What can we learn from high-stakes arenas, like the airline industry, where disaster prevention is critical?

Red team. 

Play devil’s advocate. 

Our inner demons love contrarian thinking. 


Two Struggles: sacred cows and spinning boats 

Struggle 1: spinning round: too much divergence

Ask 10 staff in a school what they think the school’s top 3 priorities should be. 

You are likely to receive 10 different answers. 

Instead of rowing together, we stick our oars in different places, so the boat doesn’t go smoothly – it spins round in a dizzying, futile and diabolical way. 

Struggle 2: groupthink – too much convergence

But ask a staff member to tell the headteacher the school’s greatest flaw, and they tend not to want to rock the boat, ‘moan’ or ‘complain’. We desire harmony, conformity. Once you are a headteacher, it’s hard to get people to tell you the full truth – and in any case, we can only deal with so much reality at any a time. So we end up overlooking valuable dissent and instead busying ourselves with fattening our sacred cows.

There seems to be both too much consensus and too much divergence at the same time. 

What’s the way out of the impasse?

Balance crucial convergence with desirable dissent. 

Desirable dissent to combat overly-cosy consensus.

Crucial convergence to confront unhealthy hostility.

Seeking desirable dissent is where red teams can help.


What is a red team?

Red teams are critical thinking teams, intended to bring leaders crucial challenge.

Red teams are assembled and designed to ask questions, reveal assumptions, propose alternatives and improve decisions. Insiders taking the position of outsiders, they are critical friends bringing preemptive, constructive, healthy conflict.  

Why red team? Three aims 

1. Red teams ask questions to anticipate the pitfalls in our plans.

2. Red teams double-check conclusions, reveal and challenge assumptions, and ensure nothing critical is overlooked.

3. Red teams propose alternatives.

How could we as school leaders use red teams?

Here’s a four-step approach we can test out to bring red team challenge to our school improvement plans and implementation plans. 

Set Up

Each red team has at least 3 members and usually not more than 5.

Each red team (1) prepares, (2) shares and (3) follows up on a red team challenge. 

Each red team makes 3 sets of recommendations: change, cut and add.


Decision-maker: share the draft priorities, goals and plan and questions targeting them.

Team: read the goal, plan and questions in advance, and prepare questions each too.


Team: discuss the questions together and co-develop alternatives.

After Follow Up 

Team: prioritise and share changes, cuts and additions.

Decision-maker: choose what to change, cut and add.


1. Problems: how are we seeing the problems here, and how could we reframe them?

2. Assumptions: what assumptions are we making, and how could we test them?

3. Risks: what are the biggest risks, impacts, probabilities and mitigations?

4. Scenarios: what are the most likely scenarios to play out? what’s the premortem?

5. Analogies: what are some alternative, creative analogies that fit our identity well?

6. Stakeholders: whose crucial perspective are we missing out on here? 

Schools naturally have different vantage points from across their different departments and subject specialisms. Subject teachers and pastoral staff naturally bring us different vantage points from their diverse domain knowledge.

Literature specialists can bring us a storytelling/analogy lens, amongst others.

Maths specialists can bring us a probability lens, among others.

Science specialists can bring us hypothesis-testing and ecosystems lenses, amongst others.

Humanities specialists can bring causation, scenarios, mapping and sustainability lenses, amidst others.

Arts specialists can bring design, prototypes, iterations and architecture lenses, among others.

Pastoral specialists can bring assumption sensitivity testing, wellbeing, emotions, sleep, community, identity, values lenses, amongst others.

If we increase staff involvement, will it help increase our staff’s commitment? a hypothesis worth testing. 

Don’t announce and pronounce. 

Invite all-staff (all-star!) feedback.

Involve and seek challenge. 

Play devils’ advocate.

Find red flags.

Red team.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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