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Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World Hardcover – May 12, 2015
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“In addition to being a fascinating and colorful read, this book is an indispensable guide to organizational change.” –Walter Isaacson, from the foreword
“This is a bold argument that leaders can help teams become greater than the sum of their parts.” —Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
“Team of Teams is erudite, elegant, and insightful. An unexpected and surprising wealth of information and wonder, it provides a blueprint for how to cope with increasing complexity in the world. A must read for anyone who cares about the future—and that means all of us.” —Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind
“Team of Teams is a compelling, pragmatic argument for a more information-rich, decentralized approach to management from a leader who has successfully weathered storms with higher stakes than most business leaders will ever encounter. A must-read book for anyone serious about taking their leadership further, faster.”—John Venhuizen, president & CEO, Ace Hardware Corporation
“General Stan McChrystal’s Team of Teams is an instant classic. Best leadership book I have read in many a decade, by one of our nation’s most gifted and iconic general officers.”—Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret), Supreme Allied Commander at NATO 2009–2013; dean, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University
“The lessons and concepts outlined in Team of Teams provide a valuable blueprint for leadership across any industry or domain. The principles of classical leadership struggle to deal with today’s pace of change, free-flow of information, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the digital generation. Team of Teams harnesses these new realities as assets, providing a leadership framework to produce the inclusiveness and adaptability of a fast-moving start-up, at the scale of any size organization.” —Brad Smith, president and CEO, Intuit
“In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal, who won some of our most striking victories in the great war between nations and terrorist networks, shares insights for all in this lucid, persuasive, and sometimes wrenching account of our troubled yet transformational times.” —John Arquilla, professor, Defense Analysis United States Naval Postgraduate School
“In the fast-moving world of today and tomorrow, organizations that don’t adapt will simply fade. Team of Teams makes this case in compelling ways. I literally could not put the book down.” —Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad”
About the Author
Stanley McChrystal retired from the U.S. Army as a four-star general after more than thirty-four years of service. His last assignment was as the commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. His memoir, My Share of the Task, was a New York Times bestseller. He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the cofounder of CrossLead, a leadership consulting firm. Tantum Collins is currently studying international relations at Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar. David Silverman and Chris Fussell are senior executives at CrossLead and former U.S. Navy SEAL officers.
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The lessons in Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World were learned in war, a crucible that produces a lot of innovation. In this case, the innovation is in thinking about what most business writers call “management” or “leadership” or “organization,” and it’s one of the best books I’ve read on those topics.
A decade ago, Gary Hamel and Bill Breen asked us to cast our mind “forward a decade or two” and ask what management will be like then. That was in their excellent book The Future of Management. Guess what? They got some things right, but missed a lot because they were the early warning system. Team of Teams is the latest report on today’s best thinking.
The through-line of the book is about the formation and evolution of the Joint Special Operations Task Force. It is the story of the quest for members of that task force to find and defeat Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is not a story about a planned change.
What McChrystal and his co-authors write about is an iterative evolutionary process of developing to understand and adapt to defeat an organization that was better suited for the modern battlefield than they were. It is also the story of how General Stanley McChrystal’s understanding of his role as the task force leader evolved. If he had stopped there, this would be another “this is how I did it” book. But McChrystal supplemented his experience with extensive research.
Two Different Models
In the beginning, the Task Force confronted Al-Qaeda in Iraq with a typical Industrial Age organization. It was designed to thrive in a complicated world, where relationships were linear and organizations strove primarily for efficiency. For that reason, the Task Force, like the rest of the Army, was hierarchical, with decisions moving up and down the chain of command. The task force relished planning, and had a culture of making decisions at the top.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was very different. Their organization was suited to today’s complex world. They shared information horizontally in an essentially flat organization. They were resilient because they were made up of many small units with freedom to act as fast as information-sharing suggested it was a good idea.
In the beginning, Al-Qaeda in Iraq had the upper hand. Chapter 1 of the book outlines that situation.
“To win, we had to change. Surprisingly, that change was less about tactics or new technology than it was about the internal structure and culture of our force – in other words, our approach to management.”
The Task Force structure was the typical Army structure. It’s also the typical organizational structure since the Industrial Revolution. Those organizations are great at efficient execution of known and repeatable processes. McChrystal and his team concluded that efficiency is no longer enough.
The challenge for the Task Force and for most organizations today is that technological changes have speeded up the world and made it more interdependent. In the old industrial world, complicated challenges would succumb to careful analysis. That made them predictable. Today, a fast-paced interdependent world is a complex phenomenon. Analysis doesn’t help much here. Instead of planning and prediction, what the task force found that it needed was resilience and adaptability. That requires a different style of management as well as different structure.
McChrystal compares a command structure to a team. In a command, hierarchy, planning and executing the plan were the way to succeed. But, if you’ve ever been part of a great team, either a military team or a sports team or a business team, you know that teams are qualitatively different from commands.
Teams are usually small but characterized by trust and information-sharing. Great teams grow by collaborating in several successful ventures. Working together is how teams learn what teamwork is for them. Team members learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and tendencies. That’s why, on most great teams, there is almost a sense that each team member knows what the others are thinking.
Transparency and information-sharing do not come naturally to most organizations, or even to most teams. For the task force to achieve what it needed to achieve, it had to go through several iterations where everything, ultimately, came up for review. By the end of the series of changes, the physical spaces where the teams worked were different, and almost every procedure had been changed in some way.
McChrystal uses SEAL teams as his model for a great team. The book describes basic SEAL training and team development, and in the process, gives a different picture than most treatments of the SEALS. McChrystal and his team point out that the primary purpose of SEAL training is not to develop super fit warriors as much as it is to develop the interdependence and trust you need to function effectively as an elite combat team. Again and again, the book returns to trust and transparency and collaboration as keys to the way organizations can work in today’s environment.
Other books that I’ve read have done a good job of describing elements of the kind of team organization that McChrystal and his co-authors are outlining. This book is different in two important ways. First, the book describes the development of team thinking in an organization that had to adapt to win. What results is a real-world example of actual changes that almost certainly would not have happened if some planning committee had tried to come up with them.
The second thing the book does is bring in research in many different fields to explain why some of the changes they made in a process of trial and learning work the way they do. What that means for you, the reader, is that you don’t have to look at McChrystal’s experience and the team he and his colleagues developed as the only way things can work. You can learn from their experience, but adapt to your experience because of the additional insights the book brings you.
There’s another big benefit to this book. Most of the key points about what makes a great team were things we already knew. McChrystal’s book puts them into a framework that’s helpful, but the book goes on to talk about how you expand that sense of trust and that transparency to a larger organization.
The truth is that one reason teams can have the transparency and trust they do is that they’re small. Most combat teams are six to eight people at the most. The largest athletic teams may have 85 players, but only a core of maybe twenty work together regularly enough to develop a team chemistry. McChrystal and his co-authors describe techniques that can expand the trust, transparency, agility, and resilience model to a larger organization. That, alone is worth the price of the book, but you wouldn’t understand it without the 130-some pages that come before it.
If you’re interested in or concerned about the ways organizations must change to be effective in a complex and fast-moving world, this book is a must-read. If you want a good study of team dynamics, this book will be worth your time. It will also be a good read for you if you’re intrigued with the military aspects of this, how the Joint Special Operations Task Force adapted to be more effective in Iraq.
Overall, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World is the best answer I’ve seen so far to the question Gary Hamel and Bill Breen asked a decade ago.
If “Team of Teams” is an honest reflection of Stanley McChrystal’s views on what it takes to lead organizations that deal with the complex challenges brought about by the volume and speed of 21st century information, this ex-commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq, may be a guy who will shatter some stereotypes about general officers. And, he deserves the ear of anyone, in any human endeavor, who wants to lead. This is a general who speaks of his leadership role as that of a gardener. And a good gardener works hard, knowing the plants and the soil intimately.
Some of the book's critics have said that there is little new offered in the way of management theory. Possibly true: as a student of Agile leadership, I didn't see any novel ideas presented. Yet in the examples provided and the unique juxtaposition of ideas, "Team of Teams" offers something persuasive and memorable.
McChrystal and his team of co-authors weave a series of gripping short stories about business successes and failures into the narrative, serving both to make “Team of Teams” an engrossing read, and to powerfully illustrate their viewpoint that successful leadership and management requires much different emphases than the focus on efficiency which made companies such as General Motors great in the 20th century. Whether contrasting the fates of two different passenger airline flights which ran into trouble while airborne, or candidly admitting the failures of JSOC to stop Al Qaida violence under his own command, McChrystal and his team relate each story to their central thesis that adaptability, information-sharing and decentralized authority have replaced efficiency and centralized decision-making as more and more 21st-century world challenges cross the threshold from being complicated (lots of moving parts, but potentially understandable) to complex (too many variables moving too quickly for any single human genius to master). This is a general who will tell you that trust and “shared consciousness,” both of which have to be cultivated, combine to form the epoxy that hold the 21st-century organization together.
One powerful image found in “Team of Teams:” that the successful organization is no longer as a “well-oiled machine,” but rather, a “living organism.” The point is not that the organism no longer needs to stay in great shape, but rather that living organisms succeed to the extent that they respond appropriately and rapidly to the constant changes that take place both within it, and in its surroundings.
Of the many stories and real-life examples which McChrystal’s team of authors use to buttress their case, the remembrance of British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s stunning victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 is a tale that contains many pearls for someone who wants to lead according to the “Team of Teams” approach. It is an oversimplification to say that Nelson broke naval convention by allowing his captains to break ranks and engage the enemy at will, without taking central direction from the flagship. The British victory had been years in the making, as Nelson had worked long and hard to develop his captains into the kind of team that would be capable of success in a naval engagement where anticipating each other’s actions was more important than which side had the superior firepower. The lesson for today’s leaders: it is not merely about turning people loose, but moreover about equipping them with the right tools, building the team mindset, focusing them on the common mission, and then trusting them to act in real time, in response to the ever-changing environment.
“Team of Teams” should be read by anyone who wants to understand how to apply Agile leadership to their particular team, whatever the industry, sport, or other team endeavor.