Book Review #7: Team of Teams
I’m generally skeptical of books that make broad claims based on experience gained in one field of expertise. However, I make exceptions for four-star generals.
Stanley McChrystal was in the U.S. Army for thirty-four years. He was the commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, trying to defeat Al Qaeda. No small task. His goal was to defeat an agile, de-centralized enemy with all the hulking resources of a bureaucratic, top-down military machine. He set out to win using old tools in a new world—with a plan borrowed from the opposition.
This bestselling book is full of war stories, to be sure, but its point is to help leaders properly define whatever problem they are facing so they can then face it head-on. The short of it as to how McChrystal accomplished this feat is that he would train people to think like he did, show them how everything worked, make sure everyone knew each other well, and then an environment where trust and purpose were prioritized would prevail.
It took time, but eventually he wasn’t the one making the call on every raid, strike, and firefight. He would have “eyes on, but hands off”—meaning he was aware of what was going on, but had empowered his trusted acolytes to make decisions in the field (their line of work obviously needed to prioritize speed). This level of trust required the right people, the right training, the right communication, and an understanding by everyone of what the goal was… because in the end General McChrystal was still ultimately responsible to his superiors for what his team did (in life and death situations, mind you).
Translating this into non-military action is an interesting endeavor. Most of us aren’t in life/death situations every hour. So, slowing a decision down doesn’t automatically ruin it (sometimes it’s quite the opposite). However, even if the ultimate goal isn’t speed, it is execution. And, execution requires (1) team members who know each other deeply and (2) team members who grasp the team’s situation and overarching purpose. Once you have those two things, you can build the trust that leads to winning.
Where org charts are tidy… teams are messy. Connections crisscross all over the place, and there is lots of overlap: team members track and travel through not only their own specialized territory but often the entire playing field. Trust and purpose are inefficient: getting to know your colleagues intimately and acquiring a whole-system overview are big time sinks; the sharing of responsibilities generates redundancy. But this overlap—these inefficiencies—are precisely what imbues teams with high-level adaptability and efficacy. Great teams are less like “awesome machines” than awesome organisms. (120)