Stacking the Deck
Team resilience lies in playing the game, not just the hand
I have the privilege of leading a small team of humans who design stuff for a living. Over the past few years, our company has moved increasingly toward a “team of teams” model, where our organizational design is expressed through delegation and inverted authority structures. In short: lead where you are and try not to meddle. The pandemic, with the requirement to work remotely without compromising excellence, has only deepened my appreciation for the model.
Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal’s book on management, Team of Teams—rooted in his experiences coordinating decentralized efforts against even more decentralized terrorists—is laden with things you already knew, but of which it’s good to be reminded. Here’s one:
The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.
Leader as enabler—I think that’s exactly right. And I’ve received the gift of many such leaders as role models. I’ve been the beneficiary of working for organizations in which leadership works to delegate and distribute very real decision-making authority.
But in my experience, these ideas can be quite challenging to implement practically as managers—even if your organization is flat. Even if decision-making authority is situated at the nearest reasonable proximity. Even if team size is kept small and agile. You’re still dealing with people, and people are incredibly complex. The humans on my team—myself included—change at least as often and unexpectedly as McChrystal’s theater of operations.
When I honestly assess my own career, I can see that I’ve moved in and out of dozens of different seasons. How I view myself, my work, my colleagues, and my effectiveness can shift without me even noticing. Leaders seeking resilient teams should make the effort to lead into those changing conditions.
Building on McChrystal’s ecosystem metaphor and extending his vivid illustrations of resilience through subsidiarity, I have found it helpful to approach each new deployment like playing a game of cards. How much can we afford to risk? How are we doing as individuals and as a team? How long can we keep at it? How can I play to my strong suit in ways that complement the strengths of the other members of my team? And, most critically, how do we do that now: in this particular time and place and on this particular project.
Reminiscent of my favorite cocktail this time of year (the Papa Doble), I’d like to take this opportunity to vigorously shake up a perfectly good metaphor. To the General’s chess master and gardener, I’d like to add a third mental model: that of a card shark. As I’ve done my best to lead through this strange season, I’ve found it necessary to let go of long-term tactics (actions and outcomes) while holding fast to long-term strategy (values and priorities). We’ve had clients disappear, colleagues move on to new opportunities, and invoices go unpaid.
But we’re doing okay.
Not because of anything I’ve done as a manager, but because my team is incredibly resilient. To a person, we’ve changed and then changed again. Each of us has moved in and out of seasons of high productivity and then (understandably) anxiety about the state of the world. I’ve seen us adapt in particular ways to what each member of the team is doing in real-time, like players sitting around a card table. I’ve taken to using the symbolism of the traditional playing card suites to think about these periods. Sometimes we make big bets, sometimes we fold. The point, of course, is to stay supple… to stay loose… to stay in the game.
Occasionally, my teammates and I will be primarily motivated by cultivation and place. We seek to put down roots and tend to our own, taking on the mindset of the faithful farmer. This isn’t the time to try new things or be overly critical. Farmers are consistent, competent, dependable, productive, and hardy. On the downside, we can also be stubborn, cranky, slow, fearful, and skeptical of new modes and ideas.
If farmers were characters in some weird management role-playing game, our player stats would be something like:
Ambition: 2; Efficiency: 1; Reliability: 3; Dedication: 4
In other seasons, we’ll behave more like entrepreneurial merchants. It’s all about the audacious move. In this mode, we become very opportunistic in our work. Merchants have many strengths: innovative, speedy, enterprising, and bold. On the downside, we can be moody, restless, arrogant, reckless, and a bit manipulative. When colleagues are in merchant-mode, I try to coach them to remember our story. Emphasis on our. By calling to mind past travails and how we’ve relied on each other, a rash merchant can reorient toward the whole team.
Ambition: 4; Efficiency: 3; Reliability: 2; Dedication: 1
Another headspace is that of the loyal soldier. My personality is predisposed to this posture, and I’ve found myself living here a lot in the time of COVID. Soldiers have a strong sense of duty, but without a clear mission and delegation of tasks we can turn into real stinkers. The key to managing folks in this mode is to keep open lines of communication, establish (and respect) clear authority structures, and surface meaningful work to do together. It’s important for soldiers to feel like everyone is contributing—and we’re all pulling in the same direction.
Soldiers can be tough, capable, effective, focused, and highly disciplined. But, as I mentioned, when drifting without clear leadership, we can become boorish, callous, irritable, flaky, and self-centered.
Ambition: 2; Efficiency: 4; Reliability: 1; Dedication: 3
Lastly—and perhaps especially in troubled times—we may shift into the mode of the long-suffering priest. Priests remember where we came from. We place great importance on mediation and tradition. We are concerned about the whole more than the individual, or ourselves. Priests have many strengths: present, hopeful, loyal, and patient. On the downside, we can also come across as distracted, perfectionistic, hypocritical, judgmental, and ineffective. When working alongside a priest, it’s important to receive the gift of their deliberate pace but meet it with clear priorities and the next best thing. A bias toward action is healthy for someone in this mode.
Ambition: 1; Efficiency: 2; Reliability: 4; Dedication: 3
One small note: I’ve found it can be effective to pair farmers with soldiers and merchants with priests. Something about the chemistry just seems to work. Farmers always have work for the soldier to do, but the soldier insists on progress toward a goal and some degree of risk taking. Priests push merchants to be less self-centered and end up contributing to big wins.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that any one of these four types is better or worse than any other—each has vital work to do and brings value to your team. The trick for a leader, as asserted in Team of Teams, is to recognize these modes and the ways we all move between them. Only then can we become enablers of truly resilient teams.