Team of Teams

General Stanley McChrystal

Stanley McChrystal is a retired four-star general from the U.S. Army. His last assignment was to serve as the commander of all American forces in Afghanistan.

General McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Forces Task Force in 2003. He soon realized that although the allied forces had huge advantages in money, resources and training they were not winning against the nascent Al Qaeda network. He began to realize that conventional war tactics no longer applied in the twenty-first century.

To defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, his task force would have to adopt the speed and flexibility of the de-centralized network of Al Qaeda. During the war, McChrystal and his colleagues transformed the Task Force into a network, combining transparent communications and decentralized decision making. Walls between silos were torn down. Decision making was pushed down. Adaptability and flexibility were emphasized. The Task Force became a team of teams and began to defeat Al Qaeda.

McChrystal and his colleagues argued that the challenges that the U.S. Army faced in Iraq were germane in today’s world to countless businesses and organizations.

The basic principles implemented by McChrystal and his team included the following:

1. Shift from silos to networking.

2. Shift from secrecy to transparency.

3. Empower individual team members.

4. Decentralize decision making whenever possible.

5. Focus on adaptability more than planning and predicting.

6. Flexibility and cohesiveness of small teams must be scaled to fit larger organizations.

7. Leadership is no longer command and control, micromanaging, but creating the broader environment.

McChrystal argues that these principles apply to all of life in the 21st century and not just when you are fighting Al Qaeda.

Our struggle in Iraq in 2004 is not an exception – it is the new norm. The models of organizational success that dominated the twentieth century have their roots in the industrial revolution and, simply put, the world has changed. The pursuit of “efficiency” – getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money – was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency.

McChrystal makes a strong case that the old adage of sharing information on a need-to-know-basis no longer works in today’s world. The emphasis must be on transparency and information-sharing so that all members of the teams have an opportunity to contribute.

Walter Isaacson, the renowned biographer of Steven Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci, outlines the basic principles of the book in the foreword:

1. Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and it’s becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together.

2. Organizations need to reinvent themselves. This involves breaking down silos, working across divisions, and mastering the flexible response that comes from true teamwork and collaboration.

3. High-speed networks and digital communications mean that collaboration can – and must – happen in real time. The distributed, decentralized, and weblike architecture of the Internet empowers each individual to be a collaborator. Likewise the necessity of real-time innovation and problem-solving requires integrative and transparent leadership that empowers individual team members.

4. This new environment gave Al Qaeda a distinct advantage, allowing the networked organization to strike rapidly, reconfigure in real time, and integrate its globally dispersed actions.

5. The U.S. military and its allies had to transform the way the special operations community operated, changing the way it waged the War on Terror.

6. Management models based on planning and predicting instead of resilient adaptation to changing circumstances are no longer suited to today’s challenges. Organizations must be networked, not siloed, in order to succeed. Their goal must shift from efficiency to sustained organizational adaptability. This requires dramatic shifts in mental and organizational models, as well as sustained efforts on the part of leadership to create the environment for such a change.

7. One conclusion they reached was that agility and adaptability are normally limited to small teams. They explored the traits that make small teams adaptable, such as trust, common purpose, shared awareness, and the empowerment of individual members to act.

8. The primary lesson that emerged, and is detailed in this book, is the need to scale the adaptability and cohesiveness of small teams up to the enterprise level. This involves creating a team of teams to foster cross-silo collaboration.

9. Doing this requires increasing transparency to ensure common understanding and awareness.

10. Decisions are pushed downward, allowing the members to act quickly. This new approach also requires changing the traditional conception of the leader. The role of the leader becomes creating the broader environment instead of command-and-control micromanaging.

At the end of the book McChrystal recaps a few basic points for leaders everywhere:

* Although we intuitively know the world has changed, most leaders reflect a model and leader development process that are sorely out of date. We often demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage.

* 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 “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.