Common Ground Part 3: Execution and the People Factor

Decision Cycles

If you have been through any strategy classes or military training, there is a good chance you have heard of the overused and applied concept of decision cycles. In school, I loved the numerous military strategy and history classes I took, but at the time, I too often thought the concepts were defined to the point of absurdity (and I am sure I will get some fun comments from friends now that I am writing about them here). Later in my career, when I found myself playing adversary against major industry blue teams, I fell back to some of the military strategy lessons to help achieve our objective in the wargame on their network. Throughout my first several engagements, I learned that those lessons could be applied heavily to help achieve a major goal of the assessment-improvement of process.

  • Plan-Do-Check-Act — Heavily used in quality assurance
  • Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) — Used by the US Military. A diagram of this process as formulated by Boyd is below
  • Observation-Hypothesis-Experiment-Evaluation (Scientific Method) — Used to evaluate hypothesis and make adjustments in scientific research
  • Observation: During the observe phase, the entity uses the unfolding circumstances combined with current interactions within the environment to formulate their perception of what is happening. They combine this info with outside information (enrichment data) to form the basis of their understanding.
  • Orient: During this phase, the decision maker takes their perception of the situation, and aligns their thoughts with the actions that are occurring. They utilize the culture of their organization, knowledge of past events, and the constant flux of information to begin to shape a potential decision.
  • Decide: This simple phase takes the information from the previous two phases and makes the decision on the best course of action.
  • Act: Having made the decision, the entity now executes that decision and utilizes any outcome as part of a feedback loop going back into the observe phase to mold a changing environment.

Affecting Decisions In Each Phase — Case Study

With knowledge of this process and the goal of intentionally slowing down the blue team’s decision cycles, the red team can plot certain actions to not only identify technical vulnerability, but also human vulnerability. Below are some possible ways that the red team can alter the decision cycles of the blue team. They are small examples that can be expanded upon greatly to build a strategic playbook of sorts.

  • Observation
  • Limit the amount of information the decision maker can gain from the environment or overwhelm the decision maker with too much competing information.
  • Plant false flags pointing to multiple adversaries to produce offensive counter-information and force the decision maker to rely on outside information that is actually not relevant.
  • Disable network security sensors to prevent them from gaining a perception in the environment.
  • Orient
  • Identify known personalities in the decision making process and leverage personality flaws or biases to hamper a proper decision.
  • Prevent the thorough analysis of information by shifting or changing TTPs frequently.
  • Identify cultural traditions and norms and utilize them as part of your attack path (it is normal for people to log in after hours, so log in after hours).
  • Study past breaches in the environment and identify errors that you can piggyback off of.
  • Decide
  • Act
  • Recognize that a decision has been executed and orient yourself prior to allow their feedback loop to occur.
  • Nullify their actions in a rapid fashion so they feel the need to repeat the same actions.

Incident Response Cycle

While not technically a decision cycle, the incident response process or “killchain” is a cyclical process that is industry recognized and applied. This process is heavily defined in NIST 800–61 R2 and their figure of the process is below. As a network adversary, recognizing the process your blue team opponent is operating within allows you to better predict their actions and plot their potential steps, which decreases the time required for your decision making and increases your strategic advantage.

  • Delegation — Certain decisions must be delegated down to prevent time lag.
  • Leadership Lag — Not all non-technical leaders will understand how to respond. They must have practice to react quicker during a real breach.
  • Out-of-Band C2 — During response efforts, the use of a compromised network will allow the adversary to instantly be inside your decision cycles by witnessing it in real-time. The adversary will also be able to apply deception or disruption operations.


When analyzing decision cycles and the incident response processes, one must recognize that bias plays a big factor in sufficiently defending an organization at all levels. As a red team, recognizing the various biases that could be used as weapons against an organization can be extremely useful. As a blue team member, you must recognize that these exist and practice working through them.


As shown throughout this post, one major motivation for conducting a red team assessment is working through a full response and breach scenario to practice making decisions. Blue teams should recognize that their personalities are in-scope and red teams should learn to focus on utilizing the psychological aspects of conflict to their advantage in addition to the technical vulnerabilities they uncover. Rigorous debriefing and team work can benefit all stakeholders involved, allowing for a fluid and rapid response during a real breach scenario.

Blog Series Wrap Up

That wraps up my brain dump and blog series about red teaming. While these posts were not overly technical in nature, I hope this series serves people well and encourages a proactive discussion on how analytical techniques can help organizations improve, both organizationally and technically. There might be another post or two like this down the line if they were helpful, particularly on debriefing. I will state it again, any form of this analysis being conducted to better the organization is useful even if it does not apply to a strict definition. As the terms have evolved, there are subsets of study and room for additional applications in the industry.



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