Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
by General Stanley McChrystal

Team of teamsRetired Army General Stanley McChrystal has penned a revealing book – but its revelations are not intentional. The combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and his team of co-authors intended to author a guide on how to use small teams to infuse organisations with dynamic and adaptive leadership. Instead they deliver an accidental exposé of what is wrong with the modern major general.

McChrystal’s book has, not unexpectedly, grabbed a fair amount of attention. McChrystal was a distinguished combat commander with a reputation for being tough, courageous, smart, brave, innovative and successful. Since retiring, he has been teaching leadership at Yale University, serving on corporate boards and running a consulting group.

And, let’s be honest, McChrystal’s highly publicised run-in with President Obama only adds to the anticipation. That clash came after Rolling Stone magazine published an unflattering profile of the general and quoted him criticising the administration. It ended, promptly, with McChrystal’s resignation. People are still fascinated with the story of how that dynamic worked out.

Lost opportunity

On this matter, the book disappoints. It offers scant new insights on the McChrystal-Obama matchup. Indeed, the president rates but one inconsequential entry in the index. This is the first warning sign that, as a leadership story, Team of Teams is one big opportunity lost.

Few leadership challenges are more important than understanding the meltdown in trust and confidence between a chief executive officer (such as Obama) and his chief operating officer (McChrystal) during an absolutely critical moment in operations (such as the Afghanistan surge). We know, of course, that Obama had every right to fire McChrystal. On the other hand, this incident is only one of many signs that, at the highest levels of this administration, civil-military relations have been unusually tense. Building a team of teams among senior leaders is an important task. Lessons learned from this high-profile experience would have fit nicely in the book.

Combat experiences

While the Rolling Stone dust-up doesn’t make it into the pages of this leadership guide, plenty of McChrystal’s combat experiences do. The general’s war tribulations and his appreciation of military history are the touchstones that frame the book’s approach to leading in the modern world.

McChrystal chronicles the difficulty of adapting the thinking and activities employed in conventional military operations to the chaotic challenges facing civilian organisations. Traditional organisations, he concludes, are ill-suited to solving today’s wicked problems.

Team of Teams is essentially a journey of self-discovery. McChrystal finds he must learn to distinguish between “linear” problems (that are decipherable and predictable) and “non-linear” challenges (complex systems where the causes and effects that drive behaviours and outcomes are far more difficult to understand). Hierarchical organisations can be structured to tame and manage linear problems. But non-linear problems require a different kind of leadership: decentralised, empowered, situationally aware, and adaptive. McChrystal’s solution: leader teams that can ride the uncertainty and ambiguity like surfers skimming the crest of a wave.

Linear solutions rule problems with process and programmes. Non-linear solutions figure out how to operate in the environment better than their competitors. The less linear the problem, the more the solution hinges on the people leading at the front lines, rather than on the folks developing processes and programmes far away from the problem.

The interesting question

What Team of Teams champions, then, is a talent solution – and that solution is unquestionably worthy. But, as a leadership text, the ideas offered by the book are hardly novel and have been better told elsewhere. Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg’s How Google Works (2014), for example, deftly shows how cutting-edge tech companies like Google have used this approach to ride the wave of consumer technological chaos and innovation.

What is interesting about Team of Teams is not that McChrystal and other army leaders worked out the difference between mastering linear and non-linear environments – but that it took them so damn long to do it. Rather than inform, the book prompts the question: What is wrong with the modern major general?

In framing the challenge, McChrystal reflects on the fundamental and original contributions of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the well-acknowledged father of “scientific management” and framer of how to build linear systems to solve linear problems.

McChrystal is also right that militaries adopted many of Taylor’s principles to fight Industrial Age warfare. Hierarchical, structured, disciplined organisations became a hallmark of Western military structures throughout the 20th century.

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