"In the course of this fight, we had to unlearn a great deal of what we thought we knew about how war—and the world—worked. We had to tear down familiar organizational structures and rebuild them along completely different lines, swapping our sturdy architecture for organic fluidity, because it was the only way to confront a rising tide of complex threats."
This is a book about unlearning and unleashing.
In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal (U.S. Army Retired) and his co-authors, Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell, argue that we must unlearn much of what we know about leadership and organizational structures. Only then can we unleash the power of new, resilient organisms that can adapt at the speed that’s required.
McChrystal argues that most organizations—and the resulting leadership styles—resemble the command-and-control structure popularized by Frederick Winslow Taylor at the turn of the twentieth century. This “sturdy architecture” works well when there’s a known and relatively stable set of variables.
But it wasn’t working for the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s as they fought the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. To combat the threats there, McChrystal needed a resilient organization that would respond rapidly to constantly shifting environments. He needed a “team of teams” and that would require:
- Restructuring from the ground up based on extremely transparent information sharing—a concept he calls shared consciousness
- Decentralizing decision-making authority—a concept he calls empowered execution
Not exactly an easy task for an organization like the U.S. military, which holds firmly to the concept of traditional chains of command. And that’s what made this particular organizational transformation, and the book about it, so intriguing.
Complex Systems Require Gardeners, Not Chess Masters
"Years later as Task Force commander, I began to view effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than chess. The move-by-move control that seemed natural to military operations proved less effective than nurturing the organization—its structure, processes and culture—to enable the subordinate components to function with ‘smart autonomy.’"
Last century was a chess match. This century is a garden. At least that’s the metaphor McChrystal introduces to explain how the “team of teams” concept can transform organizations.
The game of chess—with its multiple pieces that can move in any number of different ways—is, without question, a complicated system. Throughout the game, however, the chess master can choose each move by scanning the entire field of engagement in a single glance and pondering the many variables.
A gardener has a lot less control over the tomatoes because the garden is more than just a complicated system. It’s a complex system. The gardener can get things started at planting and reap results at harvest. In between, though, it’s all about making those subtle adjustments based on what the weather and other variables dictate.
Many leaders try to be chess masters in organizations that would be better served by someone who has adopted a gardener mindset. These organizations need to be tended, not controlled. McChrystal goes on to show us how he did it—and how we can.
They Need to Know
"Any aficionado of action movies has heard the line ‘That’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know,’ uttered by a broad-shouldered, square-jawed caricature of a Special Operations commando or serious-faced intelligence agent. Though we rarely use that phrase in real life, it is an accurate depiction of military and broader organizational sentiments about the value of information…the default is not to share."
McChrystal coined the term shared consciousness to describe the need to overhaul the “need to know” fallacy described in the quote above.
When dealing with today’s complex world, no one chess master can know everything and see the entire field of engagement. It takes too long to brief a single chess master then wait to hear what moves need to be made next.
More people than ever simply need to know what’s going on.
McChrystal talks about how they created a physical command center that wasn’t there to facilitate “the orderly, machinelike flow of paperwork. Instead, they needed a space where each team could interact with every other team in an environment not designed for separation, but for the merging of worlds.”
To accomplish this, they gutted the inside of the main bunker and ran all operations out of the Joint Operations Center—an expansive space that resembled a bullpen more than the corner office.
It didn’t work perfectly (nothing does), but it did serve as one of many steps toward greater interactivity among all those who needed to know. And it prepared everyone who knew to deal with complex sets of circumstances.
Eyes On, Hands Off
"Shared consciousness on its own is powerful, but ultimately insufficient. Building holistic awareness and forcing interaction will align purpose and create a more cohesive force, but will not unleash the full potential of the organization…just as empowerment without sharing fails, so does sharing without empowerment."
Making sure everyone knew what they needed to know was only part of the challenge. The other: speed of response. Paradoxically, McChrystal and his team were discovering that greater interactivity actually slowed things down because everyone felt the need to relay decisions up and down the chain of command.
And that’s where empowered execution came into play.
Using decision-making philosophies developed by the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain and Nordstrom department store, the leadership moved further and further toward adopting Nordstrom’s single company rule: “Use good judgement in all situations.” As they continued to push authority further down the chain of command, eventually “self-confident subordinates would make decisions, many far above their pay grade, and simply inform me.”
Time and again, McChrystal makes it clear that the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor are over. This is not about fine-tuning. It’s about the radical transformation of organizations and the way we lead them. He convinced me—and provided actionable steps toward getting there.