Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

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9781611763720: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

The retired four-star general and and bestselling author of My Share of the Task shares a powerful new leadership model

Former General Stanley McChrystal held a key position for much of the War on Terror, as head of the Joint Special Operations Command. In Iraq, he found that despite the vastly superior resources, manpower, and training of the U.S. military, Al Qaeda had an advantage because of its structure as a loose network of small, independent cells. Those cells wreaked havoc by always staying one step ahead, sharing knowledge with each other via high-tech communications.

To defeat such an agile enemy, JSOC had to change its focus from efficiency to adaptability. McChrystal led the transformation of his forces into a network that combined robust centralized communication (“shared consciousness”) with decentralized managerial authority (“empowered execution”).

Now he shows not only how the military made that transition, but also how similar shifts are possible in all kinds of organizations, from large companies to startups to charities to government agencies. In a world of rapid change, the best organizations think and act like a team of teams, embracing small groups that combine the freedom to experiment with a relentless drive to share what they’ve learned.

McChrystal and his colleagues explain their process for helping organizations embrace this model. They also share fascinating research and examples from settings as diverse as emergency rooms and NASA’s mission control center.

Read by Paul Michael. Introduction and recaps read by General Stanley McChrystal.

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About the Author:

STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL’s last Army assignment was commanding all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. He had previously served as director of the Joint Staff and as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. The author of My Share of the Task, he is currently a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and cofounder of the McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm. Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell are his colleagues at the McChrystal Group.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


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. In today’s world, creativity is a collaborative endeavor. Innovation is a team effort.

This book draws timely lessons for any organization seeking to triumph in this new environment. Based on very real and vividly described situations that General McChrystal encountered as a commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, it describes how organizations need to reinvent themselves. This involves breaking down silos, working across divisions, and mastering the flexible response that comes from true teamwork and collaboration.

I have observed this phenomenon in my own study of innovation in the digital age. The greatest innovations have not come from a lone inventor or from solving problems in a top-down, command-and-control style. Instead, the great successes—the creation of the computer, transistor, microchip, Internet—come from a “team of teams” working together in pursuit of a common goal.

I once asked Steve Jobs, often mistakenly considered a lone visionary and authoritarian leader, which of his creations made him most proud. I thought he might say the original Macintosh, or the iPhone. Instead he pointed out that these were all collaborative efforts. The creations he was most proud of, he said, were the teams he had produced, starting with the original Macintosh team working under a pirate flag in the early 1980s and the remarkable team he had assembled by the time he stepped down from Apple in 2011.

Today’s rapidly changing world, marked by increased speed and dense interdependencies, means that organizations everywhere are now facing dizzying challenges, from global terrorism to health epidemics to supply chain disruption to game-changing technologies. These issues can be solved only by creating sustained organizational adaptability through the establishment of a team of teams.

High-speed networks and digital communications mean that collaboration can—and must—happen in real time. The distributed, decentralized, and weblike architecture of the Internet empowers each individual to be a collaborator. Likewise the necessity of real-time innovation and problem-solving requires integrative and transparent leadership that empowers individual team members.

This new environment gave Al Qaeda a distinct advantage, allowing the networked organization to strike rapidly, reconfigure in real time, and integrate its globally dispersed actions. At first, this overwhelmed the Task Force led by General McChrystal, a traditional, secretive, siloed military hierarchy that was configured to solve the problems of an earlier era.

The solution was, surprisingly, found in changing management structures. The U.S. military and its allies had to transform the way the special operations community operated, changing the way it waged the War on Terror.

The experience of General McChrystal and his colleagues, and their examination of the experiences of others, taught them that complexity at scale has rendered reductionist management ineffective for solving these issues in our networked world. Efficiency is necessary but no longer sufficient to be a successful organization. It worked in the twentieth century, but it is now quickly overwhelmed by the speed and exaggerated impact of small players, such as terrorists, start-ups, and viral trends.

Management models based on planning and predicting instead of resilient adaptation to changing circumstances are no longer suited to today’s challenges. Organizations must be networked, not siloed, in order to succeed. Their goal must shift from efficiency to sustained organizational adaptability. This requires dramatic shifts in mental and organizational models, as well as sustained efforts on the part of leadership to create the environment for such a change.

General McChrystal’s experiences leading the Task Force illustrate how this dramatic transformation is possible in all organizations. After identifying the adaptable and networked nature of Al Qaeda, the general and his team explored why traditional organizations aren’t adaptable. One conclusion they reached was that agility and adaptability are normally limited to small teams. They explored the traits that make small teams adaptable, such as trust, common purpose, shared awareness, and the empowerment of individual members to act. They also identified the traditional limits of teams, such as “blinks” in the organization between teams where collaboration begins to break down.

The primary lesson that emerged, and is detailed in this book, is the need to scale the adaptability and cohesiveness of small teams up to the enterprise level. This involves creating a team of teams to foster cross-silo collaboration. That way the insights and actions of many teams and individuals can be harnessed across the organization. Innovation and problem solving become the products of teamwork, not a single architect.

Doing this requires increasing transparency to ensure common understanding and awareness. It also often involves changing the physical space and personal behaviors to establish trust and foster collaboration. This can develop the ability to share context so that the teams can decentralize and empower individuals to act. Decisions are pushed downward, allowing the members to act quickly. This new approach also requires changing the traditional conception of the leader. The role of the leader becomes creating the broader environment instead of command-and-control micromanaging.

Harnessing and sharing the power and experiences of many teams allowed the Task Force command to adapt quickly to changing events on the ground and innovate solutions that couldn’t have come from a top-down approach.

These lessons, as the authors show, apply to business and other organizations as well. General McChrystal is leading an effort, managed at the Aspen Institute, to make a year of national service, military or domestic, an opportunity and an expectation of all young Americans. Participating in a service corps is one of many ways to learn to work as a team, communicate goals, and empower decentralized decision making.

Whatever field you’re in, at whatever stage of leadership, these insights and skills will prove necessary to learn. In addition to being a fascinating and colorful read, this book is an indispensable guide to the organizational change and deep appreciation of teamwork that are essential in today’s fast-moving environment.


“Of course we understand the dangers, we simply have no other choice.”

The Afghan minister of the interior was a slightly built, soft-spoken man with a demeanor of unfailing courtesy, so his statement had the tone of patient explanation rather than indignation or defensiveness. As a young man he’d lost a leg in the Soviet War and walked with an awkward limp, but his intellect, energy, and commitment to reshaping post-9/11 Afghanistan were undeniable. When he spoke, I listened carefully.

We were talking about the Afghan Police, for whom Mohammad Hanif Atmar was responsible, discussing the horrendous casualties they were suffering in isolated stations in Taliban-contested areas. Poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and unevenly led, raw police recruits regularly fell prey to drugs, corruption, and insurgent violence. So it was incredibly frustrating to see the ministry continue to recruit new police candidates and deploy them to operational areas before they were trained. But, for a variety of reasons, Atmar felt he had no other option.

Most of us would consider it unwise to do something before we are fully prepared; before the equipment is optimally in place and our workers well trained. But as the reader will discover, that’s the situation we found ourselves in. And in researching this book, we discovered that that is the situation leaders and organizations far from any battlefield face every day.

 · · · 

The genesis of this story lies in the transformation of an elite military organization, the Joint Special Operations Task Force (described in this volume simply as “the Task Force,” or TF) in the midst of a war. We could compare ourselves during that transition to a professional football team changing from one offensive system to another in the second quarter of a critical game, but the reality was far more drastic. The Task Force’s shift was actually more akin to that team’s moving from playing football to basketball, and finding that habits and preconceptions had to be discarded along with pads and cleats.

 · · · 

But it was anything but a game or a sport. The war against a succession of terrorist groups that had simmered, with periodic outbursts since the 1970s, had gone white hot in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Task Force found itself first in Afghanistan, then, as the fight expanded, in the wider Middle East.

In the spring of 2003 we entered Iraq. What began as a heavily conventional military campaign to unseat the regime of Saddam Hussein had, by the fall of 2003, become a bitter, unconventional struggle against frustrated Sunnis who increasingly coalesced around a charismatic Jordanian extremist who had taken the name Abu Musab al Zarqawi. In the years that followed we (I had rejoined the Task Force in October of 2003) found ourselves in a bitter fight that, in the beginning, was as confounding as it was bloody.

The Task Force hadn’t chosen to change; we were driven by necessity. Although lavishly resourced and exquisitely trained, we found ourselves losing to an enemy that, by traditional calculus, we should have dominated. Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different from anything we’d planned or trained for. The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built.

Little of our transformation was planned. Few of the plans that we did develop unfolded as envisioned. Instead, we evolved in rapid iterations, changingassessingchanging again. Intuition and hard-won experience became the beacons, often dimly visible, that guided us through the fog and friction. Over time we realized that we were not in search of the perfect solution—none existed. The environment in which we found ourselves, a convergence of twenty-first-century factors and more timeless human interactions, demanded a dynamic, constantly adapting approach. For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case.

Fortunately, the common denominator of the professionals with whom I served was an almost mystical devotion to mission accomplishment. The Task Force was founded in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis failure, and perhaps those images of wrecked aircraft and the burned bodies of American servicemen at Desert One* still lay behind the force’s fierce desire to win. And so in the early 2000s we morphed, and morphed again, in a bitter struggle to first contain, and then reduce, the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

By early 2008 that goal was clearly in sight, and the Task Force’s continual adaptation had transformed it into a fundamentally new organization—one that functioned using distinctly different processes and relationships. Because we were so engaged in the fight, we thought and talked constantly about what we were doing. But it was an experience that could only come into true focus when we had the opportunity to deconstruct and study it afterward, enabling us to draw valid conclusions. That’s where this book comes in. In 2010 when I left the service, I joined with several former colleagues to explore whether our shared experience was a one-off occurrence that emerged from the unique factors of post-2003 Iraq, or whether it was a microcosm of a broader changed environment that impacts almost every organization in today’s world. We suspected the latter, but began a journey to find out.

 · · · 

This book is the work of four very different individuals, three of whom shared wartime experiences, and a fourth who shares our fascination and passion for the subject. Dave Silverman is a 1998 Naval Academy graduate-turned-SEAL who fought in Iraq before deploying on no notice to Afghanistan in 2009 to serve with me in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters. Chris Fussell is another former SEAL who spent many years at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, including a year as my aide-de-camp in the Task Force, before taking time at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey to study multiorganization fusion cells. Tantum Collins, or Teddy as we know him, I met later, as an undergraduate in a graduate leadership seminar that I have been teaching at Yale University since 2010. The incredible impression he made on me led us to ask him to spend his first year after graduation (before heading to Great Britain as a Marshall Scholar to study at the University of Cambridge) leading this effort to capture the conclusions of our experiences and study in this book. I round out the quartet, with a bit more mileage on me than my colleagues, but still more student than teacher in our examination of this critical idea.

The decision to produce yet another book to help shape and lead complex organizations did not come easily. Shelves are crammed with works of varying value, and busy leaders can feel pummeled by contradictory advice from business gurus and management consultants. But the impact of the Task Force experience drove us to test the conclusions we’d reached, because the wider implications for almost all organizations were so serious.

First, although the 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 underresourced. They were also dogmatic and offensively extreme in their conduct and views. Their strengths and capabilities were multiplied by a convergence of twenty-first-century factors, of which AQI was simply the lucky beneficiary. 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 up.

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. Understanding and adapting to these factors isn’t optional; it will be what differentiates success from failure in the years ahead.

This book won’t diminish ...

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