The United States invaded Iraq in 2003. It found itself in a tough war that left the military's senior brass perplexed, using strategies that had previously succeeded against traditional foes.
They were losing against a fairly small, less skilled, and under-resourced adversary.
General Stanley McChrystal, the Joint Special Operations Task Force commander, was well aware that he would need to turn his vast and highly effective military force into something altogether different. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) looks quite a bit more like the enemy they were fighting.
But this isn't a war narrative; rather, it's a story about a company's ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
We are currently in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, which is driving every single company on the earth to reconsider how work is done, as this synopsis is being made. It's a moment when silos need to be ripped down to identify best practices from all areas of your business and ensure that you can change at a rapid pace.
Building a team of teams is the way to go.
Before you move on, here's a proof point for you to see whether this actually works.
The number of raids they conducted each month was one of the most important indicators of the war's efficiency. They were at 10 when McChrystal arrived. They could boost that number to 18 by squeezing every little ounce of efficiency and efficacy out of their resources using the previous way. It's a significant rise.
They were able to boost that number to 300 when they became a team of teams. They were able to sprint 17 times as quickly as before, with no loss of efficacy.
That's the type of transformation necessary in an environment where speed and agility are critical to your success.
Let's get this party started.
Part I: The Proteus Problem
In 2004, the world's strongest counter-terrorist organization was up against what looks to be a motley group of extremists who wanted to take over the globe.
The main obstacle for McChrystal and his crew was not the enemy's cunning or size but the unfamiliar environment in which they were operating.
The Landscape Has Shifted
In contrast to every previous opponent the US has ever faced, AQI had an unusual structure that allowed it to become more linked, faster, and more unpredictable.
Abbreviations are popular in the military. The defining factor that holds you back in a scenario is a LIMFAC (limiting factor).
In this case, McChrystal immediately determined that the LIMFAC was in the Task Force's organizational DNA, not in tactics or technology. Only a full redesign of the executive and cultural structures would suffice.
It was about the banal art of administration, to put it another way.
Efficiency Is No Longer Enough
Most companies (including the military) have followed Frederick Taylor's "Scientific Management" approaches since the Industrial Revolution.
The systems that grew out were good at scaling up and executing well-known, repetitive procedures.
Scientific Management, for example, is a terrific route to go if you need to make a million of something and already know how to do it.
This method was extremely successful in the twentieth century. We are, however, entering terrain where a new strategy is required as we enter an era where the velocity of change is increasing by the day (a cliche, but nevertheless true).
From Complicated to Complex
We can now track practically everything with ever-increasing precision because of the technologies we've built over the last few decades.
In a complex environment, you'd assume that this would increase efficiency by adding even more predictability.
The exact reverse, on the other hand, has taken place. Because of, not because of, technological advancements, today's world is less predictable.
It's a good idea to know the distinction between complicated and complex in this case.
Machines, for example, have several pieces that are connected in rather straightforward ways.
The majority of people, for example, may be perplexed by an internal combustion engine, but it may eventually be understood as a set of connections that can be measured and comprehended. When you change or activate one of the engine's components, you'll be able to see what occurs.
Complex objects, such as live creatures, ecosystems, and national economies, comprise many interconnected pieces that interact regularly. Systems like this vary and are exceedingly unpredictable because of how closely related those things are.
Doing the Right Thing
Predicting what the adversary may do in advance and striving to optimize efficiency were both bound to fail. And McChrystal rapidly understood that what had previously been a difficult position had become a difficult one.
Being more adaptive is the only way to deal with a rapidly changing scenario. That's essentially what the Task Force did next, as it were.
Part II: From Many, One
The ideal method to put together a group that can react in real-time to a constantly changing scenario is to form, you guessed it, a team of teams.
From Command to Team
The first element they needed to modify in the Task Force was the long-standing military habit of directing from top to bottom. It would be necessary to replace it with a front-line team that reacts quickly and improvises in a real-time environment.
This consists of two components: trust and shared purpose.
You don't really need to trust your coworkers under a command structure since they're just doing what they're ordered to do by someone higher up the food chain.
When you need to make judgments on the fly, though, it's vital to have faith in the individuals you're working with. Teams dissolve into chaos if they don't have it.
This is one of the key goals of BUD/S, which includes the dreaded "Hell Week" that Navy Seals must go through to graduate. The training goal is to create super teams, not super troops.
Almost every duty in training is completed as a group. That's even if it's only strolling to the dining hall together. They're being taught to trust and rely on one another as a way of life.
Team of Teams
Small teams may create more trust over time as the team members know each other.
A group of 25 people is easy. A group of more than 100 people is challenging. A group of 7000 people, which is the size of the Task Force McChrystal was directing, is impossible.
It was extremely difficult to expand teams throughout an entire business due to their characteristics being so strong.
The answer they came up with was to build a team of teams. In this organization, the connections between groups mimicked the interactions between people in a single unit.
They didn't have to use every member of the Task Force to know everyone else to do this; all they required was to know someone on each team.
When they cooperated with another team, they could think of a friendlier face rather than an adversary.
Just how did they accomplish this? That's the next topic we'll discuss.
Part III: Sharing (Shared Consciousness)
According to him, what followed was a shared consciousness, as McChrystal designed it.
Seeing the System
To begin, the Task Force needed to debunk the "need-to-know" assumption.
This technique relies on the assumption that someone - either a person or an algorithm - understands who does and doesn't need to know which information. This is impossible in a fast-paced setting.
Every team must have a complete grasp of the interaction between all moving parts to function properly. To put it another way, for a "team of teams" approach to work, everyone on the team must view the system as a whole.
Brains Out of the Footlocker
The Operations and Intelligence (O&I) brief was a major component of McChrystal's strategy for the Task Force's development.
It is a common military practice for the leadership to meet frequently to consolidate all they are doing and know.
With little time for questions or debate, the typical style of holding this meeting was to have prepared reports from junior employees, with no opportunity for questions and discussion. It didn't matter whether or not everyone understood the update.
In fact, McChrystal's approach was to flip that premise on its head, with the briefer and the leadership spending most of their time engaging in open-ended discourse instead.
They recruited personnel from all military branches to participate, turning it into a massive event attended by thousands (yes, thousands!) regularly, six days per week. This way, the group was able to gain new perspectives and better understand complex issues.
All company people were able to observe challenges being solved in real-time and grasp the senior leadership team's viewpoint as a result of this.
They learned to trust their own judgment in circumstances that emerged outside of the meeting and to make key decisions in real-time as they progressed.
There is a strong feeling of purpose shared by everyone in the company as a consequence.
Share Information Everywhere
McChrystal began employing embedding and liaison programs to strengthen links across teams, returning to the notion of building the same degree of trust that existed inside groups.
The need for an Army Special Forces operative to be embedded in a SEAL squad, and vice versa, is an illustration of embedding. There was a time when neither team would have welcomed the invasion.
However, as time passed, they began to have a deeper understanding of one another's cultures. They even began to embrace the best aspects of each other.
Sending an ambassador-type person between institutions, such as the Task Force and the CIA, is an example of a liaison. McChrystal's approach to this activity was not novel, but his method was.
Instead of assigning these responsibilities to folks about to retire or being "put out to pasture," McChrystal sent his finest people to these positions. This was the usual procedure for a liaison program.
Gradually, the partner organizations reciprocated, and the war's linkages were reinforced. Everyone worked together towards a shared goal - defeating the enemy rather than defending their own area.
Part IV: Letting Go (Empowered Execution)
All of this work is for nothing unless you empower front-line leaders to make crucial decisions, which the Task Force and McChrystal began doing.
It was a frequent occurrence for McChrystal to be woken up in the middle of the night to complete the last call on a mission.
While it left him feeling important and valuable at the time, he soon began to doubt his own worth in the process. He typically trusted his team's ideas; therefore, his involvement was essentially a rubber stamp that merely served to drag down the process.
The Task Force ultimately concluded that placing decision-making authority in the hands of front-line workers would result in a situation where a 70% solution implemented today would be preferable to a 90% solution implemented tomorrow.
They may not make the best choices, but it was a compromise they were ready to pay to build a lean, agile organization.
Sure, the presumption was that leaders had the greater intellect and decision-making abilities. But, they discovered the complete opposite: they were receiving a 90% solution now rather than a 70% solution tomorrow.
That's because, rather than bringing ideas to their bosses for approval, they were now the folks making the ultimate decision and therefore had a greater stake in the outcome.
It's partly because the leaders never had the same understanding of what was going on on the ground.
You eventually wind up with a team that has access to information from across a network, can make quick decisions, and takes decisive action when time is of the matter.
It's all about the blend of shared consciousness and empowered action, according to McChrystal.
Leading Like a Gardener
A complicated circumstance needs a distinct leadership metaphor, just as it necessitates a new culture and conventions.
A leader in a command structure acts like a chess master, moving pieces across the board in an attempt to outsmart their opponent.
A leader in a decentralized framework is like a gardener, working to shape an environment.
Gardeners devote most of their time caring to the garden as it grows rather than planting and harvesting. They hydrate the plants, enrich the soil, and keep the weeds at bay. They work full time on these tasks, and their efforts do not go unnoticed; their acts strengthen the harvest.
Ensure you don't make the same error as some leaders and believe that gardening is passive. To achieve this effectively, you must create and manage the ecosystem with an "Eyes-On, Hands-Off" strategy.
It necessitates ongoing attention and remedial action when flaws are discovered. It necessitates that you make that "repair" obvious to the organization to imitate your activities when they come across it.
The irony is that the better a gardener you are, the more inclined you will return to chess mastery. If you want this adjustment to stick, you'll have to keep an eye on it, especially when difficulties develop.
To make some sense of the 21st century, we need to embrace new mental images more than ever before.
When shared consciousness and empowered execution are combined, the result is an adaptive organization that can adjust to any scenario.
That's the only way to get out of this situation.