I am very careful to avoid management books that are popular because they are the flavor of the day or driven by the halo effect (looking back and attributing success or failure to an individual based on results though the success was driven by other factors), but once or twice a year I come across a book that is invaluable. I just came across that book for 2020, Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams . The book initially appealed to me for several reasons:
- Many of the most valuable lessons I have applied to business come from sports or war. McChrystal is one of the most successful military leaders in my lifetime.
- The thought of a former General evangelizing less hierarchy, with him coming from one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world, was intriguing.
- He does have a strong track record, he’s literally not an armchair general. Halo Effect aside, he is largely responsible for turning around the war effort in Iraq and defeated Al Qaeda there.
- McChrystal’s challenges in Iraq are in many ways consistent with the challenges I have experienced in mobile gaming — having to adapt structures built to fight one enemy (the Russians) to fight something entirely different (Al Qaeda).
- Reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads were not only positive but pointed to real life applications.
Team of Teams met and exceeded my expectations, providing a great framework for designing your business organization to meet modern day challenges, particularly the type faced by mobile and social game companies. The book shows how to build a fast, resilient and adaptive company. It also shows that building a great company is not about finding brilliant people but about creating the underlying structure. As McChrystal experienced, “although [his] Task Force struggled in Iraq, we could not claim we were mismatched against a world-class team. Honestly assessed, Al Qaeda was not a collection of supermen forged into a devilishly ingenious organization by brilliant masterminds. They were tough, flexible, and resilient, but more often than not they were poorly trained and under resourced. Much like a Silicon Valley garage start-up that rides an idea or product that is well timed rather than uniquely brilliant to an absurd level of wealth, AQI happened to step onto an elevator that was headed. Second, and most critically, these factors were not unique to Iraq, or to warfare. They are affecting almost all of us in our lives and organizations every day. We’re not lazier or less intelligent than our parents or grandparents, but what worked for them simply won’t do the trick for us now.”
As Walter Isaacson (an author I respect) wrote in the foreword, “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.” McChrystal describes the dynamics that have impacted the world, and business, and then how you can build your company to react to this new environment.
This isn’t our parent’s world
McChrystal highlights how the world has evolved and why companies need to adapt to survive and thrive. While Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) initially seemed to be a traditional insurgency, he found that it functioned differently than anything the US military previously faced. Rather than a traditional hierarchy, “it took the form of a dispersed network that proved devastatingly effective against our objectively more qualified force.” This experience is very similar to the new type of competitors many of us face.
AQI’s success was not simply a result of how they used new technology. It was their underlying structure, networked and non-hierarchical, that made them a dangerous enemy. It was not that they knew how to post on YouTube or communicate with messaging apps. McChrystal writes, “in some ways, we had more in common with the plight of a Fortune 500 company trying to fight off a swarm of start-ups than we did with the Allied command battling Nazi Germany in World War II.”
This new and unorthodox structure diverged radically from what the US military ever faced previously as it was “more connected, faster paced, and less predictable than previous eras.” This phrase sounded very familiar to challenges I have faced in gaming. To win, or even survive, McChrystal had to change. The change according to McChrystal, was “less about tactics or new technology than it was about the internal architecture and culture of our force — in other words, our approach to management.”
He had to change, and forget, what the military thought they knew about war and the world. They had to tear down familiar organizational structures they were comfortable with and build completely different lines and flows to deal with the new type of threat.
The key takeaway is that the situation was not unique to the military but is what companies are facing every day. In our world, game development now is entirely different than what game developers faced in the 1990s or 2000s. We also need to tear down our familiar organizational structure and reconstitute it along completely different lines, swapping our robust architecture for organic fluidity.
Complexity vs Complicated
The most important concept I got from the book is the difference between complexity and complicated and how that impacts your organizational structure.
Being complex is different from being complicated. Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in straightforward and simple ways. A complicated machine like an internal combustion engine might be confusing to many people but it can be broken down into a series of neat and tidy deterministic relationships.
Conversely, things that are complex, such as insurgencies or the mobile gaming ecosystem, have a diverse range of connected parts that interact regularly. McChrystal explains, “because of this density of linkages, complex systems fluctuate extremely and exhibit unpredictability. In the case of weather, a small disturbance in one place could trigger a series of responses that build into unexpected and severe outcomes in another place, because of the billions of tiny interactions that link the origin and the outcome.” In a complex system (like mobile games or insurgencies), it is often impossible to tell what events would lead to what results. Moreover, due to these dense interactions, complex systems exhibit nonlinear change .
I often like to bring Chaos Theory into conversations about the gaming space, not only due to the chaotic nature of many game companies, but because it points to the impossibility of predicting how changes in the environment could impact your development. McChrystal also references Chaos Theory, pointing to Lorenz’s butterfly effect (a butterfly in China flapping its wings can cause a hurricane in Europe). McChrystal writes that “the significance of Lorenz’s butterfly effect is not, however, just the nonlinear escalation of a minor input into a major output. There’s uncertainty involved; the amplification of the disturbance is not the product of a single, constant, identifiable magnifying factor—any number of seemingly insignificant inputs might—or might not—result in nonlinear escalation. If every butterfly’s fluttering always led to a hurricane halfway across the world two days later, weather would be predictable (if insane). The butterfly’s fluttering leads to a storm only if thousands of other minor conditions are just right. And those conditions are so precise as to be practically immeasurable, rendering the outcome unpredictable….The reality is that small things in a complex system may have no effect or a massive one, and it is virtually impossible to know which will turn out to be the case.”
The same technologies that help the military with enhanced transportation, communication, and data abilities concurrently fill the operating environment with escalating nonlinearity, complexity, and unpredictability. According to McChrystal, “speed and interdependence together mean that any given action in any given time frame is now linked to vastly more potential outcomes than the same action a century or even a few decades ago: endeavors that were once akin to a two-or three-ball pool problem now involve hundreds of collisions.”
This unpredictability is fundamentally incompatible with reductionist managerial models based around planning and prediction. There are too many events occurring simultaneously that no matter how big your Big Data is, you cannot monitor and process it all. The new environment demands a new approach.
The old approach
The most familiar structure and attitude that needs change is the focus and goal of efficiency. Since the Industrial Revolution, most business have pursued Scientific Management (developed by Frederick Taylor), a system that is excellent for achieving highly efficient execution of known, repeatable processes at scale. Scientific Management revolves around replacing working by common sense to studying work and determining the most efficient way to perform specific tasks. It also entails allocating the work between managers and workers so that the managers spend their time planning and training with workers focusing only on executing their tasks efficiently.
The military pursued the same practice, focusing on making the soldier more disciplined and efficient. McChrystal found, though, that while his task force in Iraq was eminently efficient it was no match for AQI. What worked for the military (and business) in the twentieth century was no longer enough. The reason it is not enough is that the world has evolved from complicated to complex.
The need to build resiliency
Another takeaway from Team of Teams was that given the complex environment it is imperative to build a resilient organization. Resiliency means you and your company accepts you will have to deal with unpredicted challenges and threats. You then build an organization and systems that can “roll with the punches” rather than erecting strong, specialized defenses. Resilient systems are those that can encounter unforeseen threats and, when necessary, put themselves back together again.
Creating resiliency requires admitting you do not know everything. McChrystal writes, “[r]esilience thinking is the inverse of predictive hubris. It is based in a humble willingness to ‘know that we don’t know and ‘expect the unexpected.’”
Resiliency puts managing complexity before managing for complication. You manage complication by creating robust systems that are strengthened on their weakest links. Resilience is the result of linking elements that allow them to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage, like a coral reef.
You must pivot away from seeing efficiency as the managerial holy grail. Instead, McChrystal writes “the key lies in shifting our focus from predicting to reconfiguring. By embracing humility — recognizing the inevitability of surprises and unknowns — and concentrating on systems that can survive and indeed benefit from such surprises, we can triumph over volatility…. In effect, we needed a system that, without knowing in advance what would be required, could adapt to the challenges at hand; a system that, instead of converting a known x to a known y, would be able to create an unknown output from an unpredictable input.”
A key to building resiliency is building adaptability. According to McChrystal, “one can make contingency plans, but these can account for only a modest number of possibilities. A contingency plan is like a tree that branches at every variable outcome (if they fire when we arrive, choose path A, if not, choose path B). But when dozens of saplings shoot out from those branches every second, the possibilities become so overwhelmingly complex as to render complete contingency planning futile.”
To create adaptability you need to focus on teams. Fundamental structural differences separate commands from teams. Command structures are rooted in reductionist prediction, and very good at executing planned procedures efficiently. Teams are less efficient, but much more adaptable.
McChrystal the navy SEALs as a model team. SEALs are widely considered one of the most effective fighting units in the world. McChrystal writes, “SEAL teams accomplish remarkable feats not simply because of the individual qualifications of their members, but because those members coalesce into a single organism. Such oneness is not inevitable, nor is it a fortunate coincidence. The SEALs forge it methodically and deliberately…. The first step of this is constructing a strong lattice of trusting relationships. This will seem intuitive to anyone who has been on a team, but it runs against the grain of reductionist management; in a command, the leader breaks endeavors down into separate tasks and hands them out. The recipients of instructions do not need to know their counterparts, they only need to listen to their boss. In a command, the connections that matter are vertical ties; team building, on the other hand, is all about horizontal connectivity.,,, The formation of SEAL teams is less about preparing people to follow precise orders than it is about developing trust and the ability to adapt within a small group.”
To create an effective team you need to connect trust and purpose. Teams overcome challenges that could never be foreseen by a single manager, their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders. According to McChrystal, “while building trust gives teams the ability to reconfigure and ‘do the right thing,’ it is also necessary to make sure that team members know what the right thing is. Team members must all work toward the same goal, and in volatile, complex environments that goal is changeable…. Purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team.”
Teams do not become effective without effort. The establishment and continuation of a team requires both active management and the invisible hand of emergence, zigzagging the elements together and guiding their work. McChrystal writes, “parallel computing, joint cognition, and the oneness of a team all work toward the same goal: building a network that allows you to solve larger, more complex problems.”
The need for a Team of Teams structure
While trust and purpose is critical to creating effective teams, most mature businesses are too large to be one team. This problem often leads to a command structure telling each team what to do, which negates the resiliency and adaptability of teams. While the teams may be adaptable, a command superstructure will limit the overall organization. McChrystal writes, “[i]n a response to rising tactical complexity, many organizations in many domains have replaced small commands with teams. But the vast majority of these organizations have to be much larger than a single team; they consist of multiple teams, and these teams are wired together just like a traditional command.” In his case, “stratification and silos were hardwired throughout the Task Force.”
While teams bring some adaptability to previously rigid organizations, these performance improvements have a ceiling as long as adaptable traits are limited to the team level. As the world grows faster and more interdependent, you need to scale the fluidity of teams across entire organizations.
I love sports analogies as much as military ones in business, and McChrystal uses a sports one to exemplify this problem. He writes, “picture a MECE [mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive] structure with clear roles and responsibilities sports team, and you’d have a ridiculous spectacle: players ignoring one another and the ball, their eyes fixed on the coach, awaiting precise orders. A coach might be able to devise a more efficient way to execute any given play than whatever it is the players would improvise in the heat of the game. But the coach has no way of predicting exactly how the game will develop, and no way of effectively communicating instructions in real time fast enough to be useful to all players simultaneously…. The team is better off with the cohesive ability to improvise as a unit, relying on both specialization (goalies mostly stay in goal; forwards mostly don’t) and overlapping responsibilities (each can do some of the others’ jobs in a pinch), as well as such familiarity with one another’s habits and responses that they can anticipate instinctively one another’s responses.”
The solution McChrystal devised was a “team of teams” (hence the name of the book), an organization within which the relationships between teams resembled those between individuals on a single team. Teams that had traditionally resided in distinct silos fused to one another via trust and purpose.
Creating a shared consciousness
McChrystal dealt with a larger organizational challenge than most of us will face in linking his teams, as he was responsible for thousands of soldiers across the world. To create his team of teams, he looked at a similarly complex situation that had great results, NASA’s ability to put the first man on the moon. NASA also had hundreds of very diverse teams operating at multiple locations. According to McChrystal, “because of the interdependence of the operating environment, both organizations would need members to understand the entire, interconnected system, not just individual MECE boxes on the org chart.”
To achieve this team of teams, both NASA and McChrystal’s task force had to create unprecedented levels of transparency and information sharing. It demanded a disciplined effort to create shared consciousness.
Each individual team took pride in its own performance, like the striker who celebrates his goals while his team consistently loses. The silos of the organization looked inward, where they could see metrics of success and failure. He needed to change the definition of success, not measuring the team individually but on the overall success.
McChrystal also had to foster information sharing. Both at NASA and the Army, information was closely guarded on a “need to know” basis. The problem is this approach is it depends on the assumption that some manager or algorithm or bureaucracy actually knows who does and does not need to know which material. The team of teams had access to virtually everything, it was not pre-ordained who would see what.
Functioning safely in an interdependent environment also requires that every team possess a holistic understanding of the interaction between all the moving parts. Everyone has to see the system in its entirety for the plan to work. McChrystal writes, “NASA’s success illustrated a number of profound organizational insights. Most important, it showed that in a domain characterized by interdependence and unknowns, contextual understanding is key; whatever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of ‘interface failures. It also proved that the cognitive “oneness” — the emergent intelligence — that we have studied in small teams can be achieved in larger organizations.”
Ensuring communications flow by embedding people on other teams
As the above shows, to achieve a team of teams there needs to be team like cooperation across your business. To achieve fluid, team like cooperation, you need to build inter-team trust. One way is to embed people from one team in another team. This helps build strong lateral ties between internal and external teams.
Where systemic understanding mirrors the sense of purpose that bonds small teams, this forced mating generates trust. McChrystal recounts the story of a SEAL who worked with his force in Iraq, according to the SEAL ‘When we started constantly talking at lower levels of the organization we could basically see where the fight was hot, where it wasn’t, and where people needed ISR the most. Plus, we could see that it was actually to our benefit sometimes to surrender that asset.’ With that awareness came a faith that when theirs was the priority mission, they would get what they needed when they needed it. Holistic understanding of the enterprise now permeated the ranks.”
By embedding people on other teams, you create idea flow.
Idea flow is the ease with which new thoughts can permeate a group, like a virus, which is a function of susceptibility and frequency of interaction. The key to increasing the contagion is trust and connectivity between otherwise separate elements of an establishment. The two major determinants of idea flow are engagement within a small team exploration, frequent contact with other units. As McChrystal writes, “in other words: a team of teams.”
Less command and less control
One of the things I found most appealing in McChrystal’s book is that his ideas run counter to the traditional beliefs of the military. That resonated with me as it shows how we need to adapt these dogmas everywhere to succeed in the 21st century. Nowhere is this more apparent than command and control.
While almost everyone acknowledges that the world has changed, many managers and leaders reflect a model and style that out of date. We often demand unrealistic levels of knowledge in leaders and force them into ineffective attempts to micromanage. McChrystal points out “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.”
To achieve this role, senior leaders are more important than ever, but the role is very different from that of the traditional heroic decision maker. In McChrystal’s case, he said “I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem…. Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed – tending the garden – became my primary responsibility…. I found that only the senior leader could drive the operating rhythm, transparency, and cross-functional cooperation we needed. I could shape the culture and demand the ongoing conversation that shared consciousness required.
Leading as a gardener meant that I kept the Task Force focused on clearly articulated priorities by explicitly talking about them and by leading by example.”
The actions and behavior of an effective leader in a team of teams is very different than what is required in a traditional command system. McChrystal identified several attributes and actions critical to success:
- Leading by example, he found his “most powerful instrument of communication was [his] own behavior”
- Showing focus and commitment, which he did on daily calls by wearing his combat uniform against an austere plywood backdrop
- Demanding free-flowing conversation across the teams during their daily meeting
- Never cancelling the daily meeting and making attendance mandatory
- Showing interest in what everyone said during meetings, never looking bored, sending emails or talking
- Greeting everyone, regardless of rank, by their first name (and ensuring he knew their name going into the meeting)
- Display rapt attention when being briefed and, at the conclusion, asking a question
- Realizing that critical words were magnified in impact and could be crushing
- Asking seemingly stupid questions or admitting openly “I don’t know” was accepted, even appreciated. Asking for opinions and advice showed respect.
- Nonstop communications and visits, from town halls to larger groups. Important that everyone on the teams heard directly from him.
The end product
Creating a team of teams is not an overnight product but a transformation that requires changing both your thinking and your structure. It is also a process where shortcuts not only risk the outcome but can make the effort negative. For example, if you empower your teams without creating shared consciousness you are likely to have people driving to different goals.
Similarly, shared consciousness alone is powerful but ultimately insufficient. Building holistic awareness and forcing interaction will align purpose and create a more cohesive company, but will not unleash the full potential of the organization. You need to use shared consciousness to spread information and empower people at all levels.
As you transform your business, both your speed and precision should improve. Technology should enable your success if the culture change allows you to use it properly.
McChrystal writes, “At the core of the Task Force’s journey to adaptability lay a yin-and-yang symmetry of shared consciousness, achieved through strict, centralized forums for communication and extreme transparency, and empowered execution, which involved the decentralization of managerial authority. Together, these powered our Task Force; neither would suffice alone…. As complexity envelops more and more of our world, even the most mundane endeavors are now subject to unpredictability, and we can learn from those at the vanguard…. Our transformation is reflective of the new generation of mental models we must adopt in order to make sense of the twenty-first century. If we do manage to embrace this change, we can unlock tremendous potential for human progress.”
- The difference between complexity and complicated is central to building an organization that works in the 21st century. Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in straightforward and simple ways and are like an equation that needs to be solved. Things that are complex, such as insurgencies or the mobile gaming ecosystem, have a diverse range of connected parts that interact regularly.
- Accept that you will have to deal with unpredicted challenges and threats. You then build an organization and systems that can adapt rather than erecting strong, specialized defenses.
- Teams, while not always optimally efficient, are extremely adaptable. Teams overcome challenges that could never be foreseen by a single manager, their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders. Your teams must then interconnect into a team of teams, rather than siloed organizations. Create an organization within which the relationships between teams resembled those between individuals on a single team.