Team of Teams

The book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” by retired General Stanley McChrystal and his associates Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell has been out for more than a year. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read what I thought would be yet another general’s exercise in self-promotion. I’ve also been through too many conferences filled with speeches from high ranking executives that are essentially war stories in which they are the heroes of the story.

So, when I finally had the time to read it at the end of last year, I was surprised to find that this book is one of the best recent books on management. It has been criticized by some as not really having anything new in it and merely reflecting the undue length of time it has taken a general to figure out these things.

While there is some truth to that, the fact remains that most large corporate and public sector organizations operate in the old style that McChrystal finds inadequate for a new era of change, complexity, and creativity. This includes even highly touted tech companies who reach a certain size and stage of maturity, even while they profess to be using agile approaches.

For General McChrystal, it’s a question of what the organization is designed to achieve. Traditional “Taylorism”, which has been the model of most large organizations, aims to maximize efficiency. As part of that goal, he writes “organizations have implemented as much control over subordinates as technology physically allowed.” That certainly sounds like the traditional image of the Army and many large corporations.

Instead, he argues that in today’s world, adaptability is much more important. This is a necessary response to deep and widespread technological changes. He also notes that those same technologies make possible a more modern, more adaptable organization.

Although much of what it’s in the book isn’t exactly new, the authors synthesize the material and lay it out to build a story that should be compelling to any senior executive.

The value of teams and the use of the intelligence of team members, rather than considering them cogs in a large machine, is explained well. But the real challenge in leading large organizations is how to scale those benefits.

That’s where McChrystal and co-authors make a real contribution.

Here are some the key take-aways:

  • A systems approach and a more organic rather than mechanistic view is needed by leaders when looking at large organizations whose units must work together. Each person in the organization needs to maintain a systemic perspective too.
  • Frequent inter-team communication — “shared awareness” of the environment that develops into “shared consciousness” — is necessary to prevent teams from doing things that run counter to the needs of the overall organization.
  • On the latter point, perhaps communication is too weak a word because it implies that each side decides when and what to say. The General found instead that absolute transparency between units (and teams) was necessary. And, as he noted, “In traditional organizations, this constitutes culture change that does not come easily.”
  • Although this has been well known to organizational researchers for some time, the practice of using physical space to encourage this kind of approach is not widespread. General McChrystal relates his own and other organizations use of common spaces. Of course, in a world of increasingly virtual organizations it is especially important to create continuously operating virtual spaces, with full video, to achieve the same effect.
  • Where people from different teams couldn’t be physically next to each other, he set up “embedding and liaison programs to create strong lateral ties between our units, and with our partner organizations. Where systemic understanding mirrors the sense of ‘purpose’ that bonds small teams, this mirrored the second ingredient to team formation: ‘trust.’”
  • The leader as mastermind or chess master is yet another old concept to be thrown away and replaced by the model of a gardener who enables the ecosystem rather than directing it. We should not “demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage.”
  • In order to be able to react with necessary speed to ever changing situations, organizational leaders need to abandon traditional control because “Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.”

This book is an excellent guide to effectively managing large-scale operations to implement a strategy. But, much like the wars that General McChrystal was part of, it doesn’t focus on whether the larger strategy makes sense. That’s not a criticism of the book, just a realization that there are important considerations beyond its scope.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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