Business culture · Culture · Learning · Relationships

Team of teams by General Stanley McChrystal – leading teams to work effectively together

The book has a few essential ideas which are worth while but it takes quite a lot of background to get to them. Below are my key takeaways.

The context for McChrystal was trying to get specialist units in very different parts of the military, who each worked incredibly effectively in their specific area, to form a cohesive whole to adapt to rapidly changing situations in Iraq Eg. Getting Army Rangers, working with Navy Seals, with airforce, with the NSA and with the CIA. Each branch tended to create its own cohesion creating tightly knit teams but resulting in territorial behaviour and collectively failing to complete their missions.

The basic message is that in the the 20th century progress was made through industrial efficiency with perfectly planned production processes around complicated problems but with perfectly predictable outcomes that engineer can solve. In these structures vertical command and control management worked effectively with each team operating efficiently but limited need for close interaction between teams.

In the 21st century, in modern organisations, we face problems of complexity, networked systems where small perturbations can lead to unpredictable outcomes. To operate in complex problems we need to be able to function with much greater flexibility and adaptability, connecting disparate information, and making quick decisions with dynamic and changing plans. To do this requires a very different management style for our organisations.

His prescription is three fold

1. A need for complete information sharing across all teams to create contextual awareness across teams and a “shared consciousness”

2. A need for strong trust between teams with multiple connection points, to create a team-of-teams type operating mentality

3. The need for the right type of leadership creating an environment of “empower execution” , where the leader is focused on culture and prioritisation to drive the team dynamic

Taking each of those in turn

1. The need for information sharing across teams

  • “In a domain characterised by interdependencies, what ever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of “interface failures””
  • Emergent intelligence between teams can be achieved in larger organisations willing to commit to the disciplined deliberate sharing of information
  • Fuse generalised awareness, “shared consciousness” with specialised expertise
  • To achieve this there needs to be common purpose.
  • Emphasis on group success to spur trust, cooperation and common purpose.
  • To do this they created a daily common forum, using technology, like a global video conference where everyone called in from all of the world. Anyone from any team could participate, everyone had access to all the information with almost total transparency.
  • The success of this depended on it being quality useful information rather than beautifully dressed up rehearsed message sending.
  • The update piece from a team outlining their facts would be short eg 60 seconds, then there would be 2 to 3 minutes of open questioning and conversation from leadership. Key is active listening and real exploration, potentially followed by some perspective or framing from the senior team, but then letting the individual team decide how they would proceed. Allowed all teams to see problems being solved real time and the perspectives of senior leadership team. This gave teams confidence and permission to solve their own problems, rather than having to have decisions come from the top.
  • Think about the physical space and the way you go about doing this information sharing carefully, but also about your decision making procedures.
  • Information was shared widely without constraint. As information was shared, it encouraged others to share.

2. Creating real trust and collaboration between teams

  • The key issue is that good collaboration between teams requires sacrifice (of resources or achievement in one area) on behalf of each team for the greater good. This happens any time there are scare resources, eg engineering resources working for something good for one team or something else for another team.
  • In Game theory the prisoners dilemma type problem illustrates a situation where the individually dominant strategy (betrayal, taking the resource to further your own ends) is suboptimal to the collectively dominant strategy (cooperation but sacrifice of the resource to the greater good). Even with wholistic awareness of the situation the prisoner still has to take a leap of faith in trusting the other party.
  • The dominant strategy in a multi round game is to start with cooperation and then to always follow what the other person did in the previous round. If they betrayed you, you betray them in the next round as punishment. If they cooperate you continue to cooperate. The punishment only lasts as long as the bad behaviour continues and stops as soon as there is cooperation. A track record of cooperation at a certain point then becomes the norm and trust builds.
  • Leaps of faith are only possible when there are real relationships of trust between individuals on the different teams.
  • To build trust they encouraged individuals from one unit to spend a secondment with another unit, to be a liaison officer with that unit. And they encouraged the teams to send their best people on these assignments. People capable of building relationships even in an initially hostile environment on another team, people with low ego. They encouraged the units “if giving up this person does not cause you pain, you are sending the wrong person”
  • They supplied the liaison officer with continued intelligence and information that would be useful to the unit they were in, and gave them access to the senior team so that when a liaison officer called in a favour, they could deliver value to that team.
  • This built a system where teams got more out of accepting these liaisons and were then willing to commit their own best people to do the same in reciprocation.
  • When it comes to sharing scarce resources, if teams can understand why and how their resources will make a difference somewhere else they are much more willing to make the sacrifice of giving up that resource.

Together, the strong sharing of information around a common shared purpose, and a strong bond of trust and mutual cooperation at multiple levels between teams create the ground for “shared consciousness” across teams. Hence the books title team of teams.

3. The role of leadership

So their aim is coordinated operations that exhibit an emergent adaptive intelligence, decentralised control with empowered decision making built around a shared consciousness and information. The role of leadership is to enable all of that.

  • The role of a leader is to build, lead and maintain a culture that is flexible and durable.
  • Don’t misinterpret empowerment. Simply taking off constraints can be dangerous
  • It should only be done if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.
  • Team leaders and members can be free to make decisions as long as they provide full visibility under the “shared consciousness” model. They have to provide sufficient clear information to leadership and other teams about what they are doing.
  • It’s an “eyes on – hands off” model of leadership.
  • The objective is “smart autonomy”, not total autonomy, because everyone is tightly linked in a shared consciousness with the same purpose.
  • The role of the senior leader is “empathetic crafter of culture, rather than the puppet master”. It’s a gardner creating the right environment rather than the heroic leader or chess master taking all the big decisions.
  • The leader should be taking fewer decisions, but should be keeping the organisation focused on clearly articulated priorities.
  • This leadership comes from consistently explicitly talking about what the priorities are but also demonstrating the way the team should operate, leading by example,
  • Less is more, focus on only a few key messages and repeat them consistently. Nothing is learned until it’s been heard multiple times, and it’s only sunk in when it’s echoed back in the words of others.
  • Your strongest form of communication is your own behaviour.
  • Eg. Information sharing sessions never cancelled and attendance mandatory
  • The rules for any meeting are established more by precedent and demonstrated behaviour than by written guidance.
  • Be clear on your central role as a leader. To lead, to inspire, to understand, to guide, to prioritise
  • Watch the small behaviours. If you look bored, if you are unprepared you send a message. Interest and enthusiasm are your most powerful behaviours. Prepare, ask questions, demonstrate you have really listened, compliment work publicly, suggest improvement privately, and say thank you often.
  • Get the balance of reporting information vs active interaction right for the meeting. Get the right level of candour through the way you interact.
  • Think out loud, summarise what you have heard, how you process the information, outline your thoughts on how we might proceed, ask the team members what would be an appropriate response and what they plan to do. Ask for opinions and advice. Admit when you don’t know. Empower them to take the decisions.
  • Develop the art of asking good questions. Questions that help people arrive at the answers and see errors for themselves.
  • Be careful of overcommitment on your schedule, when you cancel people get disappointed, work done preparing for meeting with you is wasted.
  • Avoid a reductionist approach, no matter how tempting micromanaging a situation may be. The leaders first responsibility is to to the whole, to the big picture, no matter how good they may be at the particular situation.

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