- Overview. General Stanley McChrystal and his author team tell us that to beat an agile foe in an uncertain environment, an efficient team is never as effective as an adaptive one. Restructuring the Joint Special Operations Command from a classic command-and-control military management style to a more team-based, team of teams, McChrystal was far better able to fight the allusive al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under the notorious leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Forsaking the Frederick Taylor reductionist paradigm of always being efficient and effective, at the expense of being adaptive, even entrepreneurial, McChrystal remade his command into a team of teams—adaptive, trustful and with common purpose—one that communicated well, asked questions, and figured out how to be successful in an uncertain environment.
- Efficient is Not Always Effective. The authors dedicate a lot of space to Frederick Taylor’s reductionist theories of efficiency, which argue for step-by-step processes for products and service that are designed for maximum optimization and efficiency. Designed around reducing workers to near-robots with little say in how things get done, Taylor’s theories dominated at one time both industry and the military and in its day met a need to solve complicated problems; however, those theories were less effective years later when engaged workers and adaptive thinking were required for highly complex problems and in more unpredictable circumstances.
- Teams, Trust, and Communication. For teams to be effective, there must be a sense of trust among team members as well as a shared common purpose. Moreover, successful enterprises must be made up of a “team of teams,” which also shares trust between and among teams as well as an enterprise-wide sense of purpose and meaning. Trust is built by collaboration and communication, not on competition between members of a single team or between teams. When team members and teams of teams have high trust, they’re more likely to share resources in service of the greater good. On the other hand, rigid command structures tend to lead to “tribalism” and distrust.
- Space Makes a Difference. Indeed, the physical layout of an enterprise can make a big difference in how the organizational culture grows. More open and fluid workspaces allow leaders to communicate more openly and efficiently than in an isolated atmosphere. “Serendipitous interaction” takes place when people hang out near each other and can literally bump into each other and share ideas.
- Delegate but Don’t Micromanage. Intuitive to many of us today but less obvious years ago while under the Taylor efficiency shadow, micromanagement of every step in a process is a ticket to frustration and disengagement. McChrystal and his commanders learned that the more delegation down the chain of command a commander allowed, the more likely the decisions made were equally as good as if being made by commanders themselves.
- Engineering is Not Leading. For engineers, problem solving is often the Holy Grail. A set of inputs and expected outputs, a formula, a way to solve it and voila—problem solved. And if you spot any new problem that looks like the old one, simply apply the same old solution. However, when the problem morphs from day to day, traditional engineers, such as commanders hatched at West Point, had to adapt their problem-solving skills to successfully lead. This is from an insightful foreword to Team of Teams by the author of The Innovators, Walter Isaacson: “Efficiency remains important, but the ability to adapt to complexity and continual change has become an imperative.”
- Final Word on the author: I had the opportunity to chat with Stan McChrystal while writing in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, one Saturday morning. I had just posted his TED talk when he came into the coffee shop and sat down at a table next to mine. An intelligent and gracious guy, Stan is a true national treasure. In fact, his work with the Aspen Institute to create a year of national service for young Americans is something I’ve philosophically supported for many years. I just hope that he’ll be as successful at this endeavor as he was at his military career. I congratulate him on a fine book.
By General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, Chris Fussell (Kindle Edition, Penguin, 2015), Reviewed by Steve Gladis, August 2015).