Team of Teams: A Synopsis
Team of Teams is a management book written by General Stanley McChrystal, former head of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, assigned with defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In the book, the authors outline how a relatively unskilled amateur network was able to outmaneuver the most efficient, most advanced, and most organized military force ever fielded, and the lessons learned in the process of turning the tables. The book is organized into five parts, which together outline the requirements of building an effective organization-wide team of teams: shared consciousness and empowered execution.
In Part I, The Proteus Problem, the authors compare AQI to the mythical Proteus, which shifted shape as its enemy attacked. As the Task Force tried to learn AQI’s hierarchy, what they developed looked less like a traditional org chart than it did a chaotic mess of seemingly random connections. This structure allowed AQI to be more adaptable and less predictable.
The book discusses the efforts of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who at the start of the industrial revolution realized that with modern machinery work formerly performed by skilled craftsmen could be performed by breaking it down into its simplest steps, and charging an unskilled worker with performing just one of the steps. This practice of breaking complicated tasks into simple components dominated 20th-century business and gave rise to management as a discipline. Though its operators were quite skilled, in many ways the Task Force was the epitome of this drive for specialization and efficiency.
The problem the Task Force faced was that the new reality was not merely complicated but complex, with the key difference being that complicated processes ultimately yield to predictability, whereas complex problems do not. The complex problems were no longer compatible with reductionist methods that relied on predictable outcomes. In place of predictability, the Task Force needed to develop resilience – the ability to reconfigure along with the enemy, and to do this the solution was to adopt an organizational structure more similar to AQI’s network.
Part II, From Many One, deals with the differences between a command and a team. The former can execute planned processes efficiently; the latter is less efficient but more adaptable. Effective teams require trust and a sense of purpose, and having these allows them to solve problems that could never be foreseen by a single manager. Solutions arise from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The Task Force, like many modern organizations, had already adopted the team structure within units, but across the wider organization the teams remained siloed. The “command of teams” approach was more flexible than a traditional command-based organization, but still not sufficiently adaptable to deal with modern complexity. However, the trust and sense of purpose required by teams can typically be achieved only with relatively small groups – an entire organization is too big to be a team. The solution, as suggested by the book’s title, was to build a team of teams.
Part III, Sharing, deals with the need to build trust among the various teams. Harnessing the capability of a diverse and geographically dispersed organization required extreme transparency, which was difficult for organizations built around secrecy. This transparency was achieved by opening a daily briefing to an ever-wider audience of stakeholders and by cross-pollinating teams by having, say, a Navy Seal join a team of Army Rangers or CIA analysts for a 6-month rotation.
Such efforts often fail due either to a lack of reciprocity in sharing information or because the liaison officers are seen as intruders. The response to the first risk was to share anyway, in hopes that this would help build trust and over time lead to reciprocity. The solution to the second was to emphasize to liaison officers that they represented their unit, and a failure to build the trust of their new team was in effect a smirch on their “real” team. As a result, teams sent their very best officers (if it doesn’t hurt to send them, don’t) as liaisons. Over time, trust between the various teams grew, and the transparent briefings led to a sense of common purpose and shared consciousness.
Once this trust and sense of purpose was developed, it became necessary to devolve power to the teams. In Part IV, Letting Go, the authors describe how the technology that allowed managers to see operations in real time was creating its own barriers, as the managers felt more in control. However, the teams on the ground now had access to the same information and had the closest access to the problem. It was thus necessary to adopt an “eyes on, hands off” approach of enabling rather than directing.
Part V, Looking Ahead, discusses the yin-yang symmetry of shared consciousness and empowered execution. Empowering individuals without first developing the shared trust and sense of purpose could lead to selfish behavior and poor decisions. Likewise, giving team members access to the big picture and a sense of purpose, without enabling them to act on what they see would lead to frustration. Only by developing a culture in which they both play a role can a true team of teams emerge.