secret > TEAM OF TEAMS. New rules of engagement for a complex world

Key concepts of the book
Through the lenses of the characters involved in a exhausting and extremely complex war, which has been the battle against Al-Qaida terrorism:

  • we will learn to better understand the reality in which we live
  • we will retrace the most famous breakthrough and failures of human history in the field of management and leadership
  • we will understand how to face modern challenges by cultivating organizations able to adapt and react quickly, by maturing a shared consciousness –made of trust and purpose in every organizational level – and decentralized control -with power and responsibility placed exactly where the knowledge on how to act resides. 

The author, ex General of the Armies of the United States, Stanley McChrystal (together with Tantum Collins, David Silverman e Chriss Fussel) uses a narrative dense of experiences, making it simple for the reader to identify with, and to find insights applicable in each’s own everyday life. The story prompts the reader to dive into a chaotic battle against an opponent never seen before, generating anguish for the uncertainty of a new approach needed in order to confront it. How can we be up against this task? Is this challenge an our necessity, too? Do we have all the tools required to face it? What know-how do we need to be ready?

Quotes from the book
We were an outstanding twentieth-century organization, but that was of little use in the twenty-first century. We realized that of all the unexpected and blindingly obvious things, our limfac lay in the mundane art of management. (pag. 32)

This new world required a fundamental rewriting of the rules of the game. In order to win, we would have to set aside many of the lessons that millennia of military procedure and a century of optimized efficiencies had taught us. (pag. 51)

The reality is that small things in a complex system may have no effect or a massive one, and it is virtually impossible to know which will turn out to be the case.  (pag. 59)

Data-rich records can be wonderful for explaining how complex phenomena happened and how they might happen, but they can’t tell us when and where they will happen.  (pag. 72)

As Zolli [Andrew – resilient writer] puts it, “if we cannot control the volatile tides of change, we can learn to build better boats.”  (pag. 80)

Information sharing had to include every part of the force. [..] This struck many as naïve. But, as the old adage goes, “knowledge is power,” and we were throwing that power to the wind. (pag. 167)

Collective intelligence of groups and communities has little to do with the intelligence of their individual members, and much more to do with the connections between them. (pag. 196)

I began to reconsider the nature of my role as a leader. The wait for my approval was not resulting in any better decisions, and our priority should be reaching the best possible decision that could be made in a time frame that allowed it to be relevant. (pag. 209)

Within our Task Force, as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance. [..] The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.  (pag. 225)

Our destination is a future whose  [..] will take the form of organic networks, resilience engineering, controlled flooding—a world without stop signs.  (pag. 249)

To defeat a network, we had become a network. We had become a team of teams.  (pag. 251) 

Structure and contents of the book
General McChrystal recounts the profound shift (and efforts) faced in order to stand up to a rather unusual opponent -Al-Qaida- which not only had a strong and charismatic leader -Abu Musab al-Zarqawi- but also was gifted with the unusual ability to adapt quickly to any change, sometimes even the more deep ones (such as the arrest or removal of high-ranking figures). AQI was a dispersed network of cohesive units strongly focused towards one same purpose, able to rise again and constantly mutate.

A-Qaida represented a setting where the efficient Task Force guided by McChrystal, even if highly competent, rigorous and organized, revealed to be of little use: a deep change of the internal structure and culture was needed (and really quickly) – namely, a new managerial approach.

McChrystal deals with a masterful digression on the foundational principles of its Task Force, which, like most modern organizations, was based on the “Scientific Organization of Labor” by the Taylor Revolution. Nowadays, societal sectors are still strongly focused on maximization of results within the minor waste of time, money and effort.  Meaning, based on an approach focused on the meticulous division of labour in repeatable tasks, operated by a specialized workforce and supervised by a management line, responsible for coordinating the effort and objectives.

The above-mentioned doctrine, although resourceful in the last century, does not match with nowadays reality, which is more and more interconnected and interdependent, resulting in a complex system whose dynamics can be explained by the Lorenz’ Butterfly effect better than by Taylor’s model. Thanks to the technological revolution, there are phenomena that only decades ago were unimaginable, for instance the 2010 Arab Spring, which born from the sacrifice of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouzazi who went viral on YouTube, or 2013 panic generated after a tweet released by an hacker on the American Associated Press account.

The McChrystal’ Task Force journey demonstrates with facts how took place the epochal shift from a “reductionist” and a MECE organization with efficiency maximisation approach to a reality more focused on efficacy and resiliency, able to reshape more than predict the next move. All characteristics of a Team of Teams. NASA and General Motors experiences, together with the United Airlines CRM program, are only some of the examples for the implementation of a new paradigm. McChrystal’s journey faced essential passages, such as the shift from a very secretive MECE organization, towards an open system where teams are always connected and flow of useful information permeates the entire organization. Units accomplish these results by learning how to familiarize and trust themselves, and finally starting supporting one anothers. In the end, collaboration and cooperation became natural.  

By allowing people “to see the system” and fostering trust among work teams, McChrystal resolved only half of the problem.  The rate at which Al-Qaeda shifted and the choices that needed to be taken, required a further step: allowing non-high ranking people to make decisions. Thus, addressing the need to decentralize power and responsibilities.

In order to implement this substantial change, the Task Force leadership alone was sufficient no more: each one had to step up and became “Commander Nelson” in the fight against terrorism (as in famous Trafalgar battle). In order to do so, having good and competent people was not sufficient, there was the need for supportive and favorable leadership.

A beautiful digression is given by paragonating the role of a leader to a gardener: their work is not to plant seeds and harvest their fruits, but rather the constant maintenance of soil and plants, allowing them to foster strong and in a supportive environment. In order to engage in this behaviour, it is essential “to let go” of control and understand when the leadership does not add anything more to the decision-making process. Also, it is important to be coherent in order to set an example.   

Instruction on the reading
The book opens with a brief introduction and goes on with 12 chapters, regrouped in 5 different passages, or “parts”, as listed below:

  • Part 1 “The Proteus Problem”
  • Part 2 “From many, one”
  • Part 3 “Sharing”
  • Part 4 “Letting go”
  • Part 5 “Looking ahead”

This book is truly dense and written with non-trivial terminology. It offers an extraordinary quantity of information, lighting many light-bulbs. The narrative gives a full picture on the human history of the past century, till our days, providing also some useful insights to understand the current pandemic scenario and the health crisis we are living in. Each chapter is linked to the previous and next ones, nonetheless when read can be used to experience as its own in a totally definite way. I found the 4th part insightful and I recommend it to managers and leaders of all organizations.

For this review, we thank:
Massimo Lavelli, Software developer, Certified Scrum Master (CSM®). Agile practitioner
An “atypical” computer engineer. Beyond experience and passion for technology, over the years I discovered and developed a peculiar care towards the wellbeing of people. I love to see IT solutions as expressions of human creativity, and I believe that in today’s complexity we need organizations ever-more able to free the creative potential within people.