Team of Teams: A Leadership Model for a Complex World
By Dan Snelson
The 21st century is a time unlike any other. Modern technology allows instant global communication for everyone, making the world no longer just highly complicated, but increasingly complex. It is this complexity, argues General Stanley McChrystal in his 2015 book Team of Teams, that makes it vital that we take a fresh look at how we think about leadership, management, and teamwork.
Complicated vs. Complex
At the centre of Team of Teams is the distinction between complicated systems and complex systems. This difference might seem trivial, but it is in fact an incredibly important shift, requiring us to look again at how we lead.
A car engine is complicated. It has a large number of working parts. However, their interactions are predictable: rotating the crankshaft will always cause the pistons to move. A complex system can also have many working parts. The difference is that the interaction of these parts is highly unpredictable. This increase in unpredictability changes the way leaders must lead.
An Uncertain World
McChrystal provides us an example of this. You have probably never heard of Mohamed Bouazizi. A disaffected Tunisian street vendor, on 17 December 2010 he set himself on fire in protest against the Tunisian government. Within hours, accelerated by modern communications technology, protests erupted across the country. What followed became known as the Arab Spring.
The effects of Mohamed’s death could not have been predicted. Furthermore, it is unlikely that 50 years ago his death would have had the same impact. But today, enabled by unprecedented levels of connectivity, the actions of one person can have rapid, far-reaching and hard-hitting consequences. This is complexity. And complexity breeds uncertainty
Dealing with Uncertainty
In Team of Teams McChrystal leads the reader through his solution to the problem. From his perspective, in order to deal with ever increasing uncertainty large organisations must become:
Agile – Able to move quickly and with ease.
Adaptable – Able to be modified easily to suit new conditions.
Resilient – Able to withstand and recover from difficult events.
These are all qualities typical of small teams, not of large organisations. Worse still, they are characteristics that large organisations struggle to scale up. Yet McChrystal offers a set of solutions. Having adapted American Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to effectively take on Al-Qaida in Iraq, McChrystal passionately believes such ‘small team’ qualities can be achieved at scale. The ways he suggests doing so are simple to understand.
Delegating Until It Hurts
We all know to delegate, and most of us are confident that we do it well. But how far do we delegate? Do we still require our troops to gain our ‘go-ahead’ before they execute their plan? Do we still like to ‘rubber stamp’ things for fear that their mistakes that will reflect badly on ourselves?
McChrystal writes that he often found himself giving the green light for plans that those below him knew far more about, making them far better placed to make those decisions. His involvement in those decisions added lag, and reduced agility.
Building Shared Consciousness
The common argument for having this input from above is that the complex interplay between different teams that is inherent in a large organisation requires top-down oversight and broad understanding. After all, this ensures everyone is pulling in the right direction and prevents costly mistakes made by juniors.
However, McChrystal suggests another way: shared consciousness. Ensuring that intent is well understood, and that everyone has a good grasp of the overall picture can prevent these costly mistakes and improve decision making.
Of course, shared consciousness is not easy to achieve. McChrystal describes having to actively fight for it. However, by abandoning an attitude of ‘need-to-know’ and implementing open command group meetings that anyone in the organisation could sit in on, he showed that it can be achieved.
Cultivating a Cooperative Culture
Gone are the days of working in isolation. Our teams regularly have to work with groups that can differ from our own. Groups that, due to rivalries and differences in culture, we may find difficult to work with. We often come across these issues when working with different cap-badges, let alone with international allies. This is often because liaison is treated as a chore, or a task to give to those who ‘won’t be missed’.
McChrystal suggests assigning liaison tasks to your best and brightest instead. He recommends a ‘litmus test’ when selecting someone for such a role.
1. Will their loss from your team pain you?
2. Will you recognise their voice when they call you at three in the morning?
If the answer to both questions is yes, then they are the one for the job.
Coalition working is not going to go away, and there are good reasons to embrace it. We often have much to learn from our partners. Like an ecosystem, diversity typically breeds resilience. By bringing others into the fold, strengths and weaknesses can be balanced out; new lessons learnt; experience and intelligence better shared. To do this you need your best people to build cross-cultural links.
Panacea or Pipe-Dream?
You may be reading this and thinking none of it is new. Delegation, situational awareness and cooperation are not new concepts. What differs in McChrystal’s approach in Team of Teams is that these aspects of leadership are prioritised above perhaps more sacred concepts. In fact, McChrystal’s contention that ‘…the difference between command and control on the one hand, and adapt and collaborate on the other, [can be] the difference between success and failure…’ is quoted and reference in the UK MOD’s Joint Concept Note 2/17: The Future of Command and Control.
Delegation is prioritised over tight command and control because the costs of a delayed reaction are now simply too great. Situational awareness is prioritised over information security because intelligence that is two days old is often useless to soldiers on the ground. Today, the 60% solution now often trumps the 90% solution tomorrow.
You may also be reading this and thinking: ‘These concepts are all very well, applied to a very highly trained and selective organisation like JSOC. My troops, as much as they are professional, well trained and competent, are not special forces operators’. This is likely true, but a solution is offered by McChrystal, in perhaps his most important insight of the whole book.
Through our experience, upbringing and training, we have built up a certain idea of what a leader should be. In general this person is forthright, commanding and central to the team’s success. They lead the way and victory depends on their decisions.
McChrystal suggests that the time may well have come for a new model of leader: the gardener.
The gardener cultivates, nurtures, and develops. The garden does not require the gardener’s constant presence, but becomes robust, resilient and radiant thanks to the environment that they create. It is an idea that he develops in his most recent book, Leaders: Myths and Reality.
If our soldiers are not yet at the stage where they can be making important decisions without higher input, then ask why not. What can we do to get them there? With time, effort and energy invested in cultivating, we can develop them into teams that require far less direction from ourselves. Perhaps that’s what we’re subconsciously afraid of?
In conclusion, Team of Teams presents many interesting and challenging ideas in addition to the ones distilled above. By using a selection of case studies from history, McChrystal builds a case for a more nurturing style of leadership. For the junior officer or NCO looking to expand their repertoire of leadership styles, this is essential reading. For the more senior leaders out there, I suspect many of the lessons taught in this book may be ones you have already learnt for yourselves.
Even so, McCrystal’s account of leading JSOC in Afghanistan makes for a great read in and of itself. And who knows, there might still be a nugget or two in there for the more experienced and battle-weary amongst us as well.
If you want to know more about McCrystal’s other leadership book, then read our review of Leaders: Myth and Reality. Is everything we always thought about leadership wrong?